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It's too early to judge China's one-child policy

Research by four Australian scholars claims that China's family planning policy, better known as the "one-child policy", has had behavioural effects on a generation of single children, saying such children tend to be less trusting, less trustworthy and more risk-averse and pessimistic. The study also claims that such personal traits have implications for China's labour market and social development.



But a closer analysis of the study suggests the researchers might have jumped to a hasty conclusion.

First, the sample size for the study, "Little Emperors: Behavioural Impacts of China's One-Child Policy", is too small to present the whole picture. The study covered 421 well-educated Beijing residents born between 1975 and 1983, with half of them being born before the implementation of the family planning policy in 1979, and the other half after.

The sample size is not big enough to account for the whole of Beijing, let alone China. Also, the rate of higher education among single children born in Beijing between 1980 and 1983 is not quite so high; it was even lower on the national level.

Second, the study wrongly takes 1979 as a strict baseline for the enforcement of the family planning policy, but that was not the case. Such a policy was already in force in some parts of China. In 1979, it only became stricter and was extended throughout the country.

The subjects chosen for the study were between 30 and 38 years old today. But people in this age group cannot represent the massive population of single children below 30 years of age who grew up during a special time when Chinese society was transforming from collectivism to individualism.

Third, the two model groups in the research are not a cohort. The subjects born between 1975 and 1978 would now be 35 to 38 years old, and those born between 1980 and 1983 would be 30 to 33 years. Since the subjects from the two groups can differ because of the time interval of about four to seven years, the means do not serve the goals.

A span of four to seven years could see enormous changes in values, personalities and behavioural traits of a person, for example, if we were to compare the behavioural traits of a high-school student with those of a college graduate. Four to seven years can exercise a lot of influence on a person's pro-social behaviour.

In Yicheng county, Shanxi province of China, for example, many couples refused to use a pilot policy to have a second child. Given this development, if we compare cohort subjects from adjacent non-pilot counties with similar living standards, then the findings would be statistically more scientific than a non-cohort one that spans from four to seven years. The possible sampling suggestions are three: single children from the pilot county, children who grew up with siblings from that area, and single children from adjacent non-pilot counties.

The Australian researchers admit to have eliminated the "selection bias" of some parents choosing to have one child despite being conditioned to have more. Thus the comparison between single children with those who grew up with siblings is likely to be a combination of the differences in personality and behavioural traits, as well as the effects of some traits inherited from parents whose initial fertility decision was to have one child.

More importantly, it would be illuminating to examine the behavioural traits of single children across countries, rather than focusing only on China and the results of its family planning policy, because the number of single children has also risen in many other countries and regions, too.

According to the 2000 World Population Data Sheet of the Population Reference Bureau, the total fertility rate is 1.5 for South Korea, 1.3 for Japan, 1.2 for Russia and 1.0 for Hong Kong, all of which are lower than the Chinese mainland's. If single children in low total fertility-rate countries and regions have behavioural traits similar to those on the mainland, then it should be considered a general phenomenon, not the result of the family planning policy.

Besides, when it comes to the study of population policies, we cannot overlook the quality of the overall population and people's livelihoods. Countries with lower fertility rates have populations of "higher quality". In 2000, Europe's total fertility rate was 1.4, while Asia's and Africa’s were 3.3 and 5.3, and obviously Europe led in the quality of population, followed by Asia and Africa.

Let's take the situation in China. Generally, urban residents have one child while rural households have two children, so the quality of the overall population of urban children is higher than that of their rural counterparts. The reason is simple: fewer people means better exposure and access to resources.

Based on the "General Equilibrium Theory" of Gary S Becker and the "Human Capital Theory" of Theodore W Schultz, both Nobel Prize winners in economics, it is the objective requirement of human capital in modern industrialised society that the number of children should be substituted for the quality of children.

The drop in fertility rate and the rise in the number of single children are also the natural response of couples of childbearing age, because of the fear of unemployment during society's transition from a labour-intensive to a capital-intensive market.

If single children in China have more behavioural weaknesses than their Western counterparts, then education may be to blame - though spoiled by parents and overwhelmed by the exam-oriented education system, some single children do lack sound development.

Finally, our planet faces multiple crises of food, energy and other resources, and a deteriorating environment and ecology. But despite that, the number of impoverished people continues to grow drastically. In such a situation, demographers should attend to the common tasks of humanity and find ways to realise zero population growth in the world.

Stereotype research hurts. Moreover, it is too early to judge China's single children under the current population policy. If at all single children are to be judged, the responsibility should be taken up by future generations.


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