, Volume 54, Issue 4, pp 1375–1400 | Cite as

The Astonishing Population Averted by China’s Birth Restrictions: Estimates, Nightmares, and Reprogrammed Ambitions

  • Daniel GoodkindEmail author


China launched an unprecedented program to control its population in 1971. Experts have dismissed the official estimate of 400 million births averted by this program as greatly exaggerated yet neglect to provide their own estimates. Counterfactual projections based on fertility declines in other countries suggest that China’s program-averted population numbered 360–520 million as of 2015. The low end of this range is based on Vietnam—China’s best national comparator, with a two-child program of its own—and the high end is based on a 16-country comparator selected, ironically, by critics of the official estimate. The latter comparator further implies that China’s one-child program itself averted a population of 400 million by 2015, three-quarters of the total averted population. All such estimates are projected to double by 2060, due mostly to counterfactual population momentum. These and other findings presented herein affirm the astonishing impact of China’s draconian policy choices and challenge the current consensus that rapid socioeconomic progress drove China’s fertility well below two children per family. International comparisons of fertility and income suggest instead that China’s very low fertility arrived two or three decades too soon. If China had not harshly enforced a norm of 1.5-children during the last quarter century, most mothers would have had two children, one-half birth higher than observed.


China Birth planning Fertility transition One-child policy Coercion 



This research is a revision of a Working Paper in Demography at the Australian National University (Goodkind 1992) and reflects the views of the author alone. It does not represent the views of any other institution or organization. The author’s fieldwork in the 1990s in Vietnam, China, and other parts of Confucian Asia was made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The author gratefully acknowledges the reviewers and Editors of Demography for their extensive comments and guidance, as well as helpful feedback from Christophe Guilmoto, Siri Tellier, Hania Zlotnick, and Peter Donaldson.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ArlingtonUSA

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