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For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Retrospective and Predictive Study of Fertility Rates in China

60 Pages Posted: 17 Sep 2018

See all articles by Mengqiao Wang

Mengqiao Wang

Sichuan University - Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics



Background: Since 1980, China adopted a "one-child" policy for family planning. While the exclusive focus on total population control largely materialized, various negative effects occurred given the aging population and the fertility downtrend. After over 35 years, the "one-child" policy was terminated in 2016 to be replaced by a universal "two-child" policy. A comprehensive data-driven review of fertility rates in China was largely missing but urgently needed to diagnose the fertility reality.

Methods: A retrospective longitudinal study was based on age-specific and birth-order-wise crude fertility rates (CFRs) from yearly national sample surveys by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) from 2003 to 2015. Summation of CFRs revealed total fertility rates (TFRs), a key parameter with reference replacement level of 2.1. Unexpectedly, fertility dataset was officially deleted in 2016 for unknown reasons. A time-series predictive study was conducted based on the Holt's Exponential Smoothing models to restore fertility data for 2016 and beyond. Using surveys from China Family Panel Studies, a third perspective of the completed fertility rates was also addressed. Finally, a comparative study among 31 administrative areas evaluated the association between fertility rates and key socioeconomic parameters (GDP growth, dependency ratio, social security etc.).

Findings: Population structure was in the fast track of aging, and fertility rates continued to decrease to a very low level (TFR of 1.05 in 2015). Loosening birth limit had mild effect in raising 2nd births, but the catastrophic factor was the plummet in 1st births. Both the incoming shrinkage of fertile-age females and the transformative trend of delaying or even abandoning childbearing further added to a possible population crisis. Forecasts of fertility rates for 2016-2018 depicted continuity of the gloomy trend. TFR could be underestimated and would be lifted to around 1.5 after adjustment, but the "pseudo" completed fertility rates validated the still low fertility. Births produce not only humans but more importantly human resources. The three northeastern provinces in China with the lowest fertility were already suffering most socioeconomically.

Interpretation: Past overoptimistic estimates or misjudgments delayed the essential adjustment to fertility policy. China should quickly remove the still-present birth limit and switch to encourage fertility. It is equally important to help young generation embrace 1st births, and eliminate the prerequisite of marriages for childbirth. The bell tolls for the boldest and most radical family planning policy to retire after four decades, before it's too late to make fertility replaceable again.

Funding: Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities, the Ministry of Education, P.R. China.

Declaration of Interest: The author declares no Conflict of Interest.

Suggested Citation

Wang, Mengqiao, For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Retrospective and Predictive Study of Fertility Rates in China (November 8, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Mengqiao Wang (Contact Author)

Sichuan University - Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics ( email )


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