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

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A Commentary to this article is available

A Commentary to this article is available

A Commentary to this article is available


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.

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  1. 1.

    Some experts propose that “later, longer, fewer” was largely voluntary (Basten and Gu 2013; Hesketh et al. 2005), enjoyed popular support (Zhao 2015), or was the “golden age” of China’s fertility transition (Wang and Cai 2010). Others emphasize its coercive elements (Lavely and Freedman 1990; Mosher 1983; Whyte et al. 2015), a view with which I agree.

  2. 2.

    Around 2001, scholar advocates resolved to eliminate one-child restrictions (Hvistendahl 2010), an agenda that attracted generous support (MacArthur Foundation 2005:46; 2008:40). After the full lifting of one-child quotas in 2015, advocates credited themselves with debunking government claims and criticized unspecified others in the academic community for misinforming policymakers, while themselves presenting conflicting narratives of the program’s impact (Wang et al. 2016:85; Zhao 2015). For example, Wang et al. (2016:85) claimed that, “while playing a limited role in reducing China’s population, the one-child policy . . . has created . . . perhaps as many as 100 million, of China’s 150 million one-child families.”

  3. 3.

    Despite the similarities, Vietnam was demographically unique for its severe shortage of males resulting from the War of Reunification (1965–1975) and its aftermath, which reduced Vietnam’s fertility because of spousal separation, excess male war deaths, incarcerated military officers, and postwar international outmigration of males (Goodkind 1997; Hirschman et al. 1995; Merli 2000).

  4. 4.

    The counterfactual ASFRs also omit China’s ASFRs in 1980 and 1986, instead gradually interpolating China’s ASFRs between 1970 and 2000 (raked annually to match counterfactual TFRs). This violation of ceteris paribus assumptions was required to avoid an overestimation of China’s averted population (of almost 10 % by 2015). Under one-child limits, China’s ASFRs by 1980 became tightly compressed among women in their 20s. Counterfactual TFR assumptions would have raked such compressed ASFRs much higher (at the expense of later childbearing), resulting in an unrealistic acceleration of population growth.

  5. 5.

    Similarly, Sen’s (1999) choice of Kerala as a fertility comparator—an outlier among Indian states with very high levels of education—underestimated China’s program impact.

  6. 6.

    If the intention of the one-child decree was to control population growth, why did China simultaneously relax the later marriage component of “later, longer, fewer”? Among possible answers, the most plausible seems to be that authorities reasoned (incorrectly) that later marriage was rendered demographically irrelevant after the one-child decree was implemented (Banister 1987:159–161).

  7. 7.

    I obtained similar estimates from projections starting in 1980, which required two new fertility trajectories to measure the marginal impact of one-child quotas versus the “later, longer, fewer” program then in place. As noted earlier, China’s fertility under the one-child program (the lower trajectory) would have been at least 15 % lower than observed in the 1980s had it not simultaneously relaxed the minimum age at marriage. Moreover, if China had not enacted the one-child program (the upper trajectory), the TFR should have rebounded toward counterfactual levels.

  8. 8.

    The calculation of “1.8” is informal. The prevalence of only-children is inferred based on past TFRs in urban and rural areas. If 70 % of parents in urban areas around 2013 were only-children, then only 10 % of urban couples were still subject to one-child limits (a 1.9-child norm). If 20 % of rural parents were only-children (and parents with a firstborn daughter were already exempt), then only one-third of rural couples were still subject to one-child limits (a 1.7-child norm).


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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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Correspondence to Daniel Goodkind.



Table 4 Demographic change parameters used for the projection of China’s population, and total fertility rates for the counterfactual projections

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Goodkind, D. The Astonishing Population Averted by China’s Birth Restrictions: Estimates, Nightmares, and Reprogrammed Ambitions. Demography 54, 1375–1400 (2017).

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  • China
  • Birth planning
  • Fertility transition
  • One-child policy
  • Coercion