China's one-child-policy and its aftermath

The Chinese Communist Party announced the end of the disputed regulation. We look into its effect.

The policy will be kept up until a new regulation is ratified by the de facto parliament in May. This has been long overdue, says Xin Meng from the Australian National University in Canberra. She’s been studying its effect on the people. Her study Little Emperors: Behavioral Impacts of China's One-Child Policy appeared in Science in 2013.

ResearchGate: What effects of the One-Child-Policy (OCP) did you see in your study?

Xin Meng: In the study we were able to isolate the causal impact of growing up as a single child. Results there indicated that individuals who grew up as single children as a result of China’s OCP were significantly less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious individuals.

 RG: How did you go about testing it?

Meng: Whether growing up as a single child leads to behavioural differences is very difficult to identify. This is because fertility choices are influenced by personal characteristics. Parents who choose to have a single child may be a special group of parents in terms of personality and behavioural traits. These special characteristics can be transmitted to children. If we simply compare behaviour difference between single children with those who grow up with siblings, what we observe from such comparison would probably be the outcome from a combined effect of growing up with or without siblings and the differences in personality traits children inherit from their parents (those who choose to have a single child and those who choose to have many). The latter, in economics terms, is called “selection bias”, which we wanted to tease out in our study.

To do so, we identified a group of people who grew up as single children because of the One-Child Policy. This is very important because the parents of this group of people, on average, are the same in terms of personality and behaviour traits as the parents of people who grew up with siblings before the One-Child Policy was introduced. This way we can compare two groups of people whose parents, on average, had almost the same personality and behavioural traits and the difference between the two groups was only the fact that one grew up as single children while the other grew up with siblings. Put it simply, this allowed us to compare apples with apples. Thus, the average difference in the behaviour of these two groups of people told us the effect of growing up as single children as a result of the One-Child Policy.

RG: What do you think about the recent abolishment of the OCP?

Meng: This is long overdue. Chinese OCP has been under pressure for a long time and for many reasons. The OCP generation’s behavior problem is just one.  Another important factor is the ageing Chinese population. This is a potential source of economic burden because labor supply will shrink while the need for care for the old will increase in the future.

RG: You write in your study that the Chinese People’s Political Consultative conference called on the government eight years ago to abolish the policy because they had concerns about "social problems and personality disorders in young people?" Do you think this may play into the recent decision?

Meng: Yes, I think so.

RG: Do you think the children born in the OCP era will face disadvantages now in comparison to the generations prior and after?

Meng: This is a complicated question and has many facets to it.  In general, from economic status point of view, this may not be the case.  First, the OCP generation grew up during the period when China was growing very fast. Relative to pre-OCP cohort, they had better education (due to limited resources being shared among less people, so called Quantity-Quality trade-off and the fact that China’s expansion of university education since the late 1990s largely benefited them); when they entered the labor market, demand for labor was strong and labor market competition from peers was not fierce.  Second, their parents should only have one child to pass their inheritance to, which implies that the single children will be relatively wealthy. Further, now that they are of child-bearing age, they at least have the choice of giving birth to one or two children. Of course, when we discuss these issues we have to realize that the OCP was only strictly enforced in urban China, which only has a small proportion of the total Chinese population (30%). The majority of the rural population was able to give birth to 1.5 to 2 children and they will not be affected by the two children policy. Thus, the comparison of pre-, during, and post-OCP should only be applicable to the urban population.

RG: Can you imagine a two child policy to have a similar effect as the one you saw in your study?

Meng: I doubt it. The main behavioral problem associated with single children is probably related to understanding of the notion of “sharing,” which one learns during the early period of growing up. In our study, we find that those growing up as single children because of the OCP are less likely to be encouraged to be unselfish by their parents. This is not to say that parents taught them to be selfish, but it is more likely to be that there were not enough opportunities for parents to teach them to share.

RG: Would you be interested in studying the effect of this new policy?

Meng: Economists love policy shocks, especially policies which are introduced with some variations. This allows them to identify the true (causal) effects. So, yes, I’d love to. Even if I do not, other people will definitely do it. I have students recording all the details of the implementation now.

Feature image courtesy of: kattebelletje