Does Africa need a China-style One Child policy?

A better-educated workforce, economic growth, reducing HIV-Aids, but an emotional price.

As China considers easing its One Child Policy, African countries should consider versions of their own. After all, the controversial policy has played a major role in lifting millions of people from poverty.

baby with grandmother

baby with grandmother (Photo credit: monsterboox)

China’s aging population as a proportion of its total is around 9%, up sharply from 12 years ago when it was 7%. The government is concerned that, with an inadequate social system and increasingly more old people to feed than breadwinners in families, the One Child Policy could have laid the foundations for unrest.

China still has the largest population in the world, at 1.37bn, and it has continued to grow, even though the state limits most urban families to one child. The National Bureau of Statistics said recently there are about 73m people more than there were a decade ago.

Only couples who are both single children can apply to have a second child, but this policy may be fine-tuned as the government takes notice of the effect of having a population that, in terms of age, is an inverted pyramid. There is pressure on health services and many of its 118m people over the age of 65 are struggling to get by.

Money, education, jobs vs loneliness

Tales of lonely suicidal elderly people are clearly tugging at government policymakers’ heart strings. And then, there is that big, and growing, number of men who will not find women to marry – a result of couples opting to only give birth to sons.

But, China has a lot to be grateful for from an economic perspective in its One Child Policy. With one child in a family, the parents are doting, pouring all their hard-earned savings into giving that child the best education possible.

That is, no doubt, why so many Chinese youngsters are able to study for degrees at expensive universities around the world. Tens of thousands of young Chinese adults from all walks of life are graduating every year.

The results are showing in the increasingly sophisticated technology being produced in China – like ultra-fast trains, space-craft and military hardware. And, Chinese business players are becoming increasingly prominent in global terms.

Then, because there is only one child rather than several to feed, clothe and educate, these doting parents have money left over for themselves – hence the nation’s famously high savings rate. Instead of wallowing in debt, the Chinese have surplus cash to spend on themselves and abroad. And, that in turn is good for domestic consumer spending and economic growth.

Protecting reproductive rights vs economic benefits

From the perspective of other cultures, having your reproductive system controlled by the state is an appalling prospect.  In Africa, we generally celebrate each new child, and it is generally the case of the more the merrier. When we fall pregnant “accidentally”, we tend to resign ourselves to having another one as the will of a higher being.

In countries like South Africa, reproductive rights are enshrined in the Constitution. No one has a right to tamper with the most personal aspects of our bodies at any cost.

We would get angry, very angry, if we were fired from our jobs, lost our homes or were handed down fines that could bankrupt us because we had another child – as happens in China. We would resent the state forbidding us from trying again, for another gender.

Yet, ask a professional Chinese person what they think about the One Child Policy and they are likely to pledge support for the programme. Towing the Communist Party line, which is essential to survive and thrive in the workplace, they will tell you it is good for the country.

Few individuals will admit to harbouring the desire for a second child. It is socially unacceptable to admit to wanting another, though there are also many people who are clearly very comfortable with the prospect of only ever having one child.

Where are all the old people?

Despite all the reproductive freedom that we have and use in Africa, we don’t have a huge aging population. Quite the opposite.

In China, wherever you go, you see elderly people watching life go by in parks and on pavements; you see them taking their birds out of their cages for a flutter in the fresh air; you see them exercising and meditating; you see them looking after grandchildren. In Africa, you are hard-pressed to find a grey-haired person as a result of the HIV-Aids scourge.

Harsh as it sounds, a strict reproductive policy would enforce more attention to detail when it comes to contraception. With everyone more keenly attuned to the risk of pregnancy, more people would presumably bother with condoms.

China has admitted to an HIV/Aids problem, but it is nowhere near the scale of Africa’s where people in their economically productive prime are being wiped out en masse. In South Africa, you can expect your life to be over by 51 if you are man and 56 if you are a woman. In Zimbabwe, for example, the average life expectancy is believed to be a tragic 37 for men and 34 for women.

Ironically, a One Child – or even limited child – policy could help deal with the population problem that this devastating sexually-transmitted diseases has caused across the continent.

With fewer children in a family, those children would presumably be nurtured more.  There would be more at stake for the parents from an emotional and a financial perspective.

So far, nothing has worked in lifting Africa out of poverty and onto a comfortable developmental trajectory. Yet, China 30 years ago was in the same state as Africa.

Africa’s politicians have been cosying up to their Chinese counterparts to learn more about how to pull off a modern economic miracle. They should spend some time examining the One Child Policy and consider ways to adapt it for the continent’s local conditions.

By Jackie Cameron. This is an edited version of an article first published by The Citizen newspaper in Johannesburg, South Africa.

* Jackie Cameron is a freelance financial and business journalist. She has a Master of Arts degree in Contemporary Chinese Studies from The University of Nottingham. Write to her at Or share your views, by commenting about this article.


4 thoughts on “Does Africa need a China-style One Child policy?

  1. Pingback: Move over Master Chef | jackiecamerondotcom

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