Reign of Little Emperors: China’s Demographic Challenges

Reign of Little Emperors: China’s Demographic Challenges

China’s ‘Reign of Little Emperors’ is a significant era in the country’s history, caused by the implementation of the controversial one-child policy and its profound socio-economic repercussions.

The policy was officially enforced into the law in 1980 until it was gradually changed in 2016 and 2021. The policy was used as a tool to address China’s population growth and it was one of China’s most radical reforms in the country’s quest for economic development. Years later, China faces many demographic and cultural challenges.

Due to the one-child policy, families were significantly smaller compared to a typical family, which allowed these families to invest more resources in education and healthcare. Leading perhaps to a more skilled and healthier workforce, it also came with the cost of a generation of spoiled and privileged ‘Little Emperors.’

Significantly, China’s one-child policy itself did not contribute to China’s economic expansion; it was just one policy in a much bigger reform agenda that took place in the 1970s, when China began to open its economy. This was spearheaded by Deng Xiaoping, who started to reshape China’s economy by becoming the paramount leader of China after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. It was Deng Xiaoping who introduced market capitalism to the Chinese economy and designated special economic zones in cities like Shenzhen. On January 1, 1979, the People’s Republic of China and the United States re-established diplomatic ties that opened the door for foreign investments. These are just some of the reforms that took place as China gradually steered away from a planned economy and Maoism.

China’s one-child policy was introduced in a period when the country was going through massive economic expansion. With a huge labor force and an economic concentration on industrialization, and an export-driven growth model, China came out of the shadows as a global economic powerhouse. According to reports by China’s National Bureau of Statistics and The World Bank, China’s GDP on average grew by 9.2% from 1978 to 2020 and skyrocketed urbanization numbers, lifting millions out of poverty over the years. More specifically, from 1981 to 2020, 853 million Chinese nationals exited poverty. This is a demonstration of the effectiveness of China’s economic policies (though credit also is owed to China’s tough workforce).

It is important to state that this brutal one-child policy was forced on Chinese people through mass abortion and sterilization campaigns that China carried out. According to the Brookings Institution, a prominent American think tank, there were 21 million births in China in 1983. That same year, there were 14.4 million abortions; 17.8 million IUD insertions; and 20.7 million (largely female) sterilizations. A large proportion of these procedures were conducted involuntarily, according to Brookings.

Besides the obvious inhumanness of this policy, massive demographic challenges have been caused by these decades of artificial intervention. Based on reports and publications by the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization, China is facing an aging population and a shrinking workforce, and as a result, a growing dependency ratio. Moreover, Chinese people’s cultural preferences for male heirs aggravated gender disparities, leading to a surplus of men and a deficit of women in the population. On top of that, growing up as an only child triggered psychological pressure among these little emperors to do extremely well academically and professionally. These are the layers of China’s complex demographic landscape.

According to official government policy announcements and other reports by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, China has recognized the growing demographic crisis and they have implemented several policies, such as investments in social welfare programs and reforms in healthcare and pensions to provide support for the elderly. Also, they changed the decades-long controversial one-child policy to two children per family in 2016, and again in 2021, when China’s Communist Party announced it would be relaxing the policy to allow for up to three children per couple. Through this radical support for the elderly and extreme reforms, China is trying to mitigate the economic consequences of these demographic shifts, but according to some economists, China should’ve relaxed the policy decades ago, and now it’s too late.

These changes in China’s demographic policies have echoed resoundingly throughout Chinese society, reshaping family dynamics, labor market structures, and economic sustainability. The shift toward smaller families and the rise of dual-income households in China have transformed the typical traditional familial roles and expectations. To address the massive threat that the aging population poses to the country’s productivity and innovation, China continuously strategizes and promotes labor force participation and skill development to regain its competitive advantage in the world arena. Now, China is at the focal point of developing skills and providing opportunities like employment and academic scholarships to students in developing countries to attract skilled labor that will directly stimulate China’s economy as it gets ready to face its future challenges.

These radical policies and reforms remain a subject of debate, especially when it comes to long-term economic sustainability. But China’s future growth projections aren’t any worse than what many other countries are expecting, as many advanced — and even developing countries — have already projected a drop in birth rates and overall population decay, which dwindles productivity and innovation. According to the World Bank, China’s economy is estimated to grow 4.6% in 2024 and 4.3% in 2025, which is higher than what’s estimated globally (3.1% and 3.2%) and in the U.S. (2.1% and 1.7%) in 2024 and 2025.

Amidst these demographic complexities, the legacy of the “Reign of Little Emperors” continues to shape China’s economic trajectory and societal fabric. While the one-child policy was one of the factors intended to stimulate economic growth at unprecedented levels, it also left behind a trail of demographic challenges that require innovative solutions for a sustainable future.

About the Author

Dulvan Senaratna is enrolled in the Northwood University undergraduate program at ANC Education in Sri Lanka. In addition to pursuing a BBA in International Business, he has led guest lectures and has been involved in several economic and women empowerment dialogues over the years. He authored this piece as a Student View in the March/April When Free to Choose, which is Northwood’s signature publication promoting free enterprise.

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