China: Aftermath of the One-Child Policy

By: Kathryn Hillegass, Columnist

Photo Credit: Alamy, via The Telegraph (UK)

China’s nearly four-decade long experiment with a one-child policy is ending, but its effects will continue to plague its economic and social landscape for generations to come. The problem with autocratic demographic policies is that it takes decades to recognize the unintended consequences of such laws and even longer to reverse the trends. Attention surrounding the October 29 announcement to permit Chinese couples to have up to two children has focused primarily on the economic consequences of an aging population and on the social issues caused by gender imbalance. However, this analysis will examine how the one-child policy and its recent reversal will adversely impact China’s long-term security posture, particularly its military spending and culture, and the likelihood of conflict.

China’s official stance on family policies has changed dramatically over the past sixty years. Under Mao Zedong, human capital was the bedrock of both a thriving nation and a strong family. Birth control was abolished and birth rates reached as high as six children per household by 1960. However, after the Great Famine of 1959-1961 killed an estimated 30 million people, uncontrolled population growth became a legitimate threat to order and sustainability. [i]  By the 1970s, the government launched multiple campaigns to curb birth rates, but did not officially strip women of their reproductive rights until the one-child policy was implemented in 1979.[ii] After over 35 years of enforcement, the policy credibly prevented 400 million births and reduced birth rates from roughly 6 to 1.7 births per woman today.[iii],[iv] Despite its success, emerging fears of a demographic time bomb have diminished the former widespread anxiety of overpopulation, leading to the most recent policy shift. Although the negative consequences of the one-child policy have been evident for at least a decade, it is likely the recent economic slow-down forced the Communist Party of China to confront its demographic challenges this year.

Economically speaking, China will have relatively fewer able-bodied workers to pay for the burgeoning costs of a society that is living longer and longer. Balancing this deficit will continue to impact China’s ability to build a military which can compete as a peer-competitor with the United States. In September, President Xi Jinping announced plans to cut 300,000 troops from its military, roughly a 13% reduction and the largest cuts in two decades.[v] China is facing similar pressure as other nations to build a lighter, more effective force. Even though China will continue to have the manpower to fill its ranks, modernization in equipment and training to bring its military on par with the United States will require continued massive investment. While China has continued to increase its annual military spending by over ten percent for the past two decades at a rate which outpaces its growth in GDP, the recent surge in military expenditures by other Asian nations will likely pressure China to continue this trend despite its recent economic slowdown.[vi] The slowdown coupled with rising domestic pressure over the next several decades to support the welfare of the elderly may force the party to make difficult trade-offs between external security and domestic fiscal responsibility.

Beyond the size of the military budget, the one-child policy’s creation of “little emperor syndrome” threatens the discipline and tenacity of the People’s Liberation Army. When over 70% of soldiers come from families in which the child was the sole pride and joy of two parents and four grandparents, the spoiled, entitled attitude presents a strategic vulnerability in combat.[vii] If true, this problem will not begin to subside for at least another 20 years even if reproductive patterns start changing as early as March when the policy will likely take full effect.

In addition to the impacts on the military itself, the one-child policy has created a contradictory dynamic for the overall likelihood of conflict. While countries with older populations tend to be more averse to war, having large populations of men with no prospects for marriage tends to contribute to the rise of violent conflict.[viii] China’s surplus of males will likely peak in the next twenty years with an estimated 40-50 million bachelors unable to find a wife.[ix] Without significant reforms in China’s welfare policies, the peak male surplus will likely coincide with massive domestic unrest as it struggles to figure out how to pay for the elder generations. The confluence of these trends could serve as a fatal spark for conflict, either internally or externally in order to distract from domestic unrest.

From the United States’ perspective, China’s failed demographic policy has done more to stall China’s rise to global hegemony over the next several decades than any U.S. policy ever could. Even rescinding the policy does not guarantee Chinese women will actually start reproducing at higher rates. Didi Tatlow provides compelling evidence to explain how entrenched the one-child culture has become in China and casts doubt on how likely that is to change in the near term.[x] The reason demographic indicators are such a reliable metric of analysis is the same reason it is extremely difficult for China to reverse its demographic trends. It takes at least 18 years to create a larger adult population. We know with relative confidence twenty years out the size of the force or latent military capacity we are facing. In the case of the fallout from one-child policy, the United States is likely to compete against a smaller Chinese military with steeper internal competition for resources.   However, demographics is just one of many indicators, and time will tell if a less economically viable China with a smaller, but potentially more efficient, military is in fact good for America.


[i] Fitzpatrick, Laura, “A Brief History of China’s One-Child Policy,” Time, July 27, 2009, accessed on November 8, 2015,,8599,1912861,00.html.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Chang, Gordon, “Coming Soon: China’s Demographic Doomsday,” National Interest, August 10, 2015, accessed on November 8, 2015,

[iv] World Development Indicators, “Fertility rate,” The World Bank, accessed on November 8, 2015,

[v] Wong, Edward, “China Announces Cuts of 300,000 Troops at Military Parade Showing its Might,” New York Times, September 2, 2015, accessed on November 8, 2015,

[vi] Bitzinger Richard, “China’s Double-Digit Defense Growth,” Foreign Affairs, March 19, 2015, accessed on November 19, 2015,

[vii] Chan, Minnie, “Soldiers of the One-Child Era…” South China Morning Post, February 5, 2014, accessed on November 8, 2015,

[viii] Mesquida, Christian, “Male Age Composition and Severity of Conflict,” Politics and the Life Sciences, September 1999, accessed on November 8, 2015,, p. 181.

[ix] Den Boer, Andrea, “The security risks of China’s abnormal demographics,” Washington Post, April 30, 2014, accessed on November 8, 2015,

[x] Tatlow, Didi Kristen, “One Child Culture is Entrenched in China,” New York Times¸ November 4, 2015, accessed on November 8, 2015, .

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