Yong Cai on East Asian Pro-Natalist Policies

Yong Cai's research focuses on China's one-child policy and its implications for fertility and social policies. The one-child policy, engineered to control China's population growth by restricting fertility to one child per couple, has been controversial for many reasons, including the policy's questionable demographic and economic assumptions, the ethical concerns regarding direct state intrusion into family matters, and its negative social and demographic impacts. Cai's work has contributed to an emerging consensus on China's fertility change and the impact of one-child policy. Specifically, his work shows that: China's fertility has dropped to a level well-below the replacement; the demographic impact of the one-child policy was modest, much less than the government's claim of 400 million averted births; socioeconomic development played critical role in driving China's fertility decline; and the socioeconomic impacts of low fertility and population aging are substantial. The consensus on these issues, to which Cai contributed, provided the empirical and scientific foundation that persuaded Chinese government to end the three-decades long policy. Cai continues to monitor China's fertility in the post- the one-child era, but with a new focus on international comparisons on sustained low fertility and population aging, both from a micro perspective about individual responses and family dynamics, and from a macro perspective about social welfare regimes and public transfers.

Jonathan Becker CMC '24 interviewed Dr. Yong Cai on October 15, 2021.

Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Yong Cai.

How significant is the declining birth rate in China, and what are the potential problems associated with the low birth rate? 

If the number reported by the Chinese government based on the 2020 census was indeed true, this is truly significant, because this is a very simple number--1.3 kids per woman. The replacement fertility for any population in the developed world is roughly 2.1. That means every generation of the Chinese population will decline by 30%. That's a gigantic number and while the Chinese population is still growing slowly, this birth rate will make natural population decrease happen much more quickly than many people had anticipated. 

What sort of threat does a declining birth rate post specifically to the Chinese regime? 

When I teach my class, I try to hold back the simplistic view of demographic determinism, that if you have a declining population then something is going to happen later on. It never works that way, but clearly we can draw certain connections. For example, according to reports coming out this year, childcare facilities in Beijing experienced a lack of enrollment. They don't have enough kids, so that's a direct and immediate concern. With the dwindling numbers that we see right now, the dynamic where Chinese parents try to fight to get their kids into the best programs and to get into the best schools could change. Now, we are probably going to see a reversal of that dynamic, where schools are going to be fighting for kids. That also has implications for all kinds of industries. Aside from just the education system, video game companies will also probably feel the direct impact. And because it takes roughly twenty years for a child to grow up, join the labor market, get into the marriage market, and then produce the next generation, we can easily predict and foresee what's going to happen twenty to thirty years down the line. We need the labor force to work and to contribute to society and to the pension system.  

At a macro level, this cycle is not unique to China and not even unique to East Asia. For the last 200 to 300 years, the capitalist model has been based on a single word: growth. Every year we want increase the GDP, produce more products and better products. Part of that comes from population growth. When you have population growth, you have a higher demand. While inflation by itself could be a bad thing, we have some tools to attack it. Deflation, on the other hand, most economists don't know how to deal with.  Population growth is important for the economy, and Japan is a good example. People have long asked why the Japanese economy is not growing as fast anymore. One key factor behind this slower development is its population trends. The Chinese regime has established its legitimacy for the last thirty to forty years based on the idea that the government should lead the economy growth. The government says, "This is a very successful model, you should trust us." However, now they are going to lose their main engines of economic growth: population and urbanization. This could cause some trouble for the government later on. 

What do China's recent pro-natalist campaigns involve? 

There are basically "carrots" and "sticks." The carrots are more generous maternity and paternity leave policies, childcare, and so on. In addition, right now you see the government trying to stop game companies from taking kids' attention away from studying. They have also regulated the after-school industry to try to take the pressure off. There are also reports coming out that the Chinese government is discussing the possibility of tightening up the rules on abortion. There's even a joke that I have seen circulating online, saying that the best way to increase fertility is basically to ban contraceptive methods like pills and condoms or to put a tax on them. In general, the government wants to have control, and when they want to have control, they often pull out draconian rules. 

Have you heard about media campaigns? Is the Chinese government trying to position child rearing and childbirth as something that people must do? 

I don't see those tactics as encouragement so much as the "sticks" that I mentioned. The government is trying to force people to have kids by painting it as their obligation to the society, to the government, and to the entire country. Right now, this expectation has raised to three kids. I'm not sure specifically how they are carrying this out, but I can certainly imagine that it parallels what they have done for roughly forty years with the One Child Policy. The slogans may have rotated 180 degrees, but the methods are probably still the same. 

What do you think are the broader cultural and/or socioeconomic factors that are shaping the Chinese birth rate? 

There are a couple main factors. One is urbanization. Another is increasing education, which has made women much more independent from their traditional families. In the old days, Chinese traditional living arrangements were patriarchal and patrilineal. Basically, when a woman got married, she would move into her husband's village and live with her husband and his parents. She was under all kinds of pressure to fulfill the family obligation to have kids and to have at least one son. Now with urbanization, women are increasingly moving to urban area living by themselves, or maybe with their boyfriends and husbands. That potential for independence removes a lot of the pressure that women used to feel. Along with this, one thing you can notice is that the education level of Chinese woman has increased dramatically. In fact, right now there are more female college students and graduates than male. That's a cultural shift because women want their independence; they want to make decisions, and they want to determine their own lifestyle. 

Has the continued stigmatization of “leftover women” disappeared as more and more women seek independence and choose to opt out of the traditional model? 

This stigmatization is certainly not going to help because the counterargument is that a lot of women don't want to marry into a system where they have very little input and all sorts of pressure on them. Why should they marry into such a system? People are starting to say that being independent is actually a much better choice from a woman's perspective. If you want women to play the traditional family role, you need to entice them. They need more support from the husband's family and to be treated as equal. And that's why fertility is particularly low in East Asian countries, because there's a link between gender equality and fertility rates. In northern European countries, for example, they have higher fertility rates because gender equality is quite a bit better, and they not only have social support, including more generous maternity leave and childcare support, there's also a great deal of familial support which makes it less of a burden to have kids. It is still burdensome to have kids: it's not cheap or easy to do. But when you have someone to share the burden with, it becomes a much more socially rewarding experience. 

How did other East Asian countries, Japan and Korea specifically, try to remedy their birth rates? 

The Japanese birthrate has been below replacement levels for more than half century, and the Japanese population is already in the negative growth territory. The Japanese government tries to encourage people to have kids with media campaigns, but gender equality is still the problem. The Communist regime in China brought a version of gender equality, at least to urban areas. Access to jobs in China was, for a while, quite a bit better and it's still better in many ways than in Japan. That is why fertility in Japan has not been able to bounce back. South Korea is probably somewhere between China and Japan in terms of the government's efforts. The government has tried to launch cultural changes to support women, but social change is much harder than just putting a policy on paper. So far, we have not seen a major effect coming out of those policies. That's why I think it will be difficult to turn things around quickly in China. 

What do you see as sort of the future of pronatalist policies in China and of fertility rates across the world? 

The Chinese government will continue to do what it has been doing, and it seems like some efforts will be more effective than others. It's like with the One Child Policy. Some people argue that the One Child Policy was quite effective. If you look at the numbers, that is the case. But if you look underneath, it was not as effective as it seemed. Chinese fertility was already low before the launch of the One Child Policy. But now that economic progress has taken place and women are increasingly moving to urban areas, we see the sustained fertility decline to a level below replacement. If we had seen an immediate rebound after the One Child Policy ended, we would not need to be concerned, but that's certainly not the case. The challenge is the social side of China, and this is not unique to China. Even in countries like the United States, we can see that fertility has been decreasing, and we don't know when it will stop decreasing. The general theme here is the incompatibility between a modern society that is organized around individual choice, and the rigidity of reproduction based on social survival. 

Jonathan Becker CMC '24Student Journalist

Ka23 13, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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