The gap between fertility ideals and reality in East Asia: a mixed-method comparative study of Beijing Municipality and Taiwan

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Social Policy and Intervention


Ultra-low fertility rates in parts of East Asia are a threat to long-term growth and economic competitiveness. These very low birth rates lead to a shrinking labour force which has to support a rapidly ageing population. Most governments in the region are prioritising family policy in order to encourage fertility as a core strategy for securing their economic future.

However, some scholars believe that after a prolonged period of very low fertility, small families become the social norm, which would make it much harder for Governments to increase birth rates. Yet, while the average Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan is only between 1 and 1.4 children, the generally reported ideal family size in these countries is, in fact, two children. This suggests that there is an appetite for larger families which either direct or indirect policy interventions could potentially address (e.g. through reforms in policy concerning family benefits, childcare, women's work, housing, education etc.) In urban China, however, similar fertility rates are coupled with reported ideal family sizes of around one - even where couples are allowed to have a second child. Taken at face value, this suggests that small families have become more normalised and culturally engrained in urban China than other areas because of its recent history of population control. Policy interventions to increase fertility would be far less likely to succeed in such a situation where, unlike in Taiwan or Japan, there is no desire for two or more children. On the other hand, this reported desire for only one child in urban China may be simply a result of many years of governmental insistence on the benefits of one-child families emerging in survey responses. In other words, are the respondents in urban China simply saying what they think the survey taker wants to hear? Meanwhile, there is the counter-argument that the responses of those surveyed in urban China reflect the real situation in the rest of East Asia with which it shares so many economic and cultural characteristics. These include long hours of work, cramped housing, a high cost of living and high levels of investment in children. Could the reported desire for two children in other East Asian settings simply be a reflection of broader (Western/historical) cultural norms of the two child family?

Most of the surveys which address these issues have only been analysed and discussed at a basic, descriptive level. These give no more than tantalising glimpses of the predictors of different family ideals. More rigorous statistical analysis will clarify the interactions between personal characteristics and socio-economic circumstances and the choices and decisions which they make relating to family-formation. Secondary data analysis of populations in two important areas should show whether or not couples in Beijing (and by extension urban China) really prefer very small families. In that case, the absence of any 'unmet need' for children would remove any leverage from family policy measures designed to encourage the birth rate. These issues can then be further explored in interviews with 'real people' to find out their aspirations, hopes and worries about family formation.

This will be the first project to compare two East Asian populations - Beijing Municipality and Taiwan - which share ultra-low fertility and similar social and economic characteristics, but which have markedly different reported ideal family sizes. If it appears that fertility will, indeed, be extremely hard to increase, this raises profound questions about population size and structure not just in parts of Asia, but also potentially across parts of the developing world.

Planned Impact

Academic beneficiaries

A broad array of the academic community will benefit from this research both in terms of broader access to new data-sets and an interdisciplinary contribution from demography and social policy to other disciplines. The fact that this is the first major project examining fertility in East Asia to be performed in Europe emphasises its role in enhancing the knowledge economy of the UK and the European Research Area.

A major new project in demography will contribute to the visibility of the discipline, open new avenues for collaboration with social policy. The project will also develop skills for researchers in China and Taiwan, especially in international collaboration and engagement with the UK research community.

East Asian policymakers

The ultra-low fertility rates prevalent in urban China and Taiwan have been cited as a key determinant of major future changes in their economy and society, not least through rapidly ageing populations. These represent significant issues to East Asian policymakers in terms of economic performance, social welfare, quality of life and, possibly, aspects of international competitiveness and domestic unrest. As such, through its explicit interaction with policymakers, the research will contribute towards evidence-based policy-making through influencing public polices at a regional and national level. The applicant already has strong links to policymakers in East Asia, both through his advisory work with the Taiwanese government and as an advisor at the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology. In both urban China and Taiwan - and, indeed, across East Asia - many organisations work specifically in this field and will gain significantly from the output of the research (e.g. Chinese Family Planning and Population Commissions; Taiwanese Interior Ministry.)

East Asia industry

As a consequence of ultra-low fertility, changes in the labour force and wage inflation could impact upon industry in a highly significant way. Furthermore, in a context of relatively weak central social policy formulations, industry is clearly a key area where attitudes towards family and partnership formation can be affected. As such, the research will seek to contribute to local competitiveness and influence changes in organisational culture and practices.

UK industry and policy makers

From January to April 2009, UK-China's total bilateral trade was US$10.65 billion, while bilateral trade in goods between UK and Taiwan amounted to US$4.5 billion in the first 8 months of 2011. Given the role of potential wage inflation and the ageing population in China and Taiwan, the impact of low fertility on local economies and society will have a measurable impact on UK industry and policy makers. The applicant will engage with UK Parliamentarians via the All Party Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health, the China-British Business Council, UK DTI, UK Trade and Cultural Office (Taiwan) and the Taipei Economic Representative Office, UK in order to relate our research to the fostering of global economic performance and the economic competitiveness of the UK.


The proposed public dissemination of the research will contribute to increasing public awareness and understanding of population issues, science, economy and society. Furthermore, if the research does indeed highlight a policy gap and contributes to the policy discussion on this, it could play a role on improving social welfare and enhancing quality of life, health and well-being.


The applicant is realistic about the role which this research could play in shaping family policy in East Asia - especially China - but feels that the close links with collaborators and policymakers in the region, and the role played by users in the design and execution of the project, could influence the processes of broader policy reform and increasing effectiveness of public services and policy.
Description East Asia currently has some of the lowest fertility rates in the world. This translates into rapid population ageing and, ultimately, population decline. Understanding the likely trajectories of fertility is therefore critical to the economic future of territories across the region.

Demographers are divided in their opinions about the likely future of fertility across the region. The UN projections generally assume that fertility across the region is likely to increase. This is based upon the experience of other countries - mainly in Europe - who have seen their birth rates decline and then recover. Many experts, however, have forecast that fertility rates may stagnate at low levels, citing core differences between the Asian and the European transition to low replacement fertility.

The first steps of the project involved an in-depth meta-review of existing literature on fertility preferences in mainland China. This review of both the extant literature and 37 studies published in Chinese between 1979 and 2009 provided 'further indicative evidence that the fertility preferences of Chinese urban dwellers may be at a level similar to their currently low levels of cohort fertility'. This evidence was later corroborated by the study by Hou Jiawei and her colleagues who came to similar conclusions about urban dwellers, but also identified a growing convergence between rural and urban citizens .

An important critique of studies of fertility preferences in mainland China is that they are biased by the family planning restrictions which were in place (even where couples are explicitly told to state their preferences assuming no restrictions). As such, we decided to explore fertility preferences in Taiwan; a culturally Chinese setting with no history of family planning restrictions. This would also allow us to validate the claim in the literature that there is a two-child norm in low fertility East Asia more generally; and, indeed, explicitly stated for Taiwan.

The evidence we found was contrary to the orthodox view. Our paper - the first full-length examination of fertility intentions in Taiwan published in English - found that while there was some evidence for a 'two-child norm' among childless women, this could be an unrealistic ideal. This was supported by the fact that a majority of women with one child do not intend to have another. Together, this evidence suggested that (a) the data from mainland China may not be as biased as is often suggested; and (b) there is, indeed, evidence that fertility preferences (as measured through intentions) in both Mainland China and Taiwan have indeed fallen well below two children, and that both may be in the 'Low Fertility Trap'.

Having established the presence of sub-replacement fertility preferences in both Mainland China and Taiwan, the next phase of the project sought to better identify the reasons for this. More precisely, we wanted to find out what made some people more or less likely to have a second child.

Further analysis of the survey data from Taiwan found that women whose first child was a boy, or whose husband was unemployed were less likely to have a second child; implying that a preference for boys still existed, and that economic uncertainty in the household might lead to having fewer children. On the other hand, women with one child who were more highly educated were less likely to say that they would have no children. We also explored preferences for boys in Beijing, and found evidence of general ambiguity towards the sex of the child.

A general problem with quantitative analysis is that while 'predicting' variables are identified, it is not often easy to understand why different people behave in different ways. As such, it is difficult to design policies related to the issues. In order to better understand childbearing in Chinese settings in Asia, we performed a qualitative exercise in Beijing and Taipei.

As well as trying to better understand the context of childbearing in both urban mainland China and Taiwan, we also wanted to see whether or not the similarities in the quantitative evidence presented above would be seen in these in-depth interviews. As such, we sought to make a comparison between two groups which shared as many similarities as possible in order. Geographically, we compared Beijing with Taipei: both large urban and economic centres with high costs of living and very low fertility rates. In terms of population subgroups, we compared Beijing couples who were eligible to have two children (under the policy restrictions which were in force prior to 2016) with couples with one or two children in Taipei City.

In total we held 56 interviews in Beijing, Taipei and New Taipei City. The findings were strikingly similar in both cities. In both cities, the cost of childbearing was given as the dominant reason for overall low fertility at the societal level. However, economic issues for individual respondents generally were related to the timing of children, rather than the total amount.

Perhaps the most persistent theme related to the sharing of care for children. Generally speaking, the women who were able to share responsibilities for childrearing and other domestic work were those more likely to either have, or state an intention to have, a second child - and vice versa. This support was to either come from partners or, especially in Beijing, grandparents.

Take this quote from a respondent in Taipei, who resented the lack of involvement of her partner in childrearing:

I don't want to have any more children. My partner has so little time to take care of our child. Before our first child went to kindergarten, it was almost just me taking care of him. It was really tiring... My husband hardly devoted any energy when we had our first child, and he never changed a nappy for our baby he basically did not take care of the child in the evening. The idea to have another kid drives me crazy! I think I cannot handle that.

This quote from a mother in Beijing identifies a number of key elements, especially relating to not wanting to be alienated from society as a mother; but also needing to work to survive:

Mother: For a while I have to stay at home to take care of my child, and I found I was alienated from society. So I think I need a job to keep in touch with our society. I won't to be a full-time housewife, and I think it's not good.
Interviewer: So if you give birth to a second child, who will take care of the child? Will your parents help you?
Mother: Of course. My parents will help me to take care of my child, because I need to work, I have not enough time to do this.

The decision to have a second child, therefore, appears to be largely driven by the experience of the first child, and the extent to which women have to do everything alone and/or have to double burden of work and childcare.
Exploitation Route The evidence from the qualitative exercise appears to suggest a link between more equal sharing of parenting responsibilities and the likelihood of having/intending to have a second child. Arguably, this represents a dilemma for policymakers, in that legislating for gender inequality in the private sphere is infinitely more problematic than for the domestic sphere.

Policies to ease the female 'double burden' of work and childbearing should be further developed. Clearly, policies to further develop affordable, flexible, high quality childcare which serves the needs of both parents and children are a crucial tool. Similarly, reforms which enable a more 'family friendly' environment for both mothers and, especially, fathers could prove to be important tools in tackling gendered inequalities in childcare.

At the same time, however, policies should be careful to recognise the right of women to choose not to combine work and childbearing, and to ensure that either the childless or those who choose to forego work in parenting are not penalised.

While direct financial incentives have some use in purchasing childcare services, the evidence from this study (and elsewhere) is that the amount offered is too small to make any real difference, when offset against both the actual cost of childbearing and the 'physical' and 'opportunity' costs for women and their careers.

The empirical evidence from the analysis of the Chinese Taipei surveys again suggest that, net of major unexpected changes, fertility could well stay at very low levels in Taipei.

In 2016, mainland China moved towards a nationwide 'two-child policy' . The respondents we interviewed in Beijing were already eligible to have two children, so this change did not affect them. The evidence from Beijing - building on previous studies by Hou et al. for example - suggests that intentions to have two children are not as widespread as is often thought. Even further relaxations which may allow three or more children are very unlikely to have any impact in fertility in Beijing. This evidence therefore suggests that fertility in Beijing Municipality could well stay low, in the absence of a major change (e.g. pronatal-policy intervention).

In validating previous reviews of fertility preferences in China through a comparative approach, the evidence from this project strongly suggests that the one-child family has become an increasingly normalised aspect of the Chinese demographic landscape. If these preferences are translated into actual fertility, it is possible to argue that the move towards a national two-child policy may have a more modest impact on cohort fertility than some in the media have suggested.

In some areas (e.g. Shanghai), family planning officials have been encouraging couples to have a second child . Such a policy could, potentially, be expanded elsewhere. However, unless effective policy is designed to tackle the underlying reasons for low fertility - at least as presented for a large urban centre in this project - it is unlikely that fertility will increase.

Finally, the project has identified some methodological developments which could be of value to academics. Firstly, we have sought to further demonstrate how a mixed-methods approach can improve our understanding of demographic processes. Secondly, the project has demonstrated that it is possible to consider China in a comparative research framework, despite its unique history of family planning policies.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description There have been some important impact consequences of the project. Firstly, as a consequence of the early work in the project on patterns of low fertility in Asia, I was able to convince the United Nations to adopt an alternative approach to designing their population projections. For this work I was awarded 2nd place in the ESRC Celebrating Impact award (International). Over the course of the project, I have been working closely with both the government in Taiwan and in China - and the National Health and Family Planning Commission in particular. Over the course of the grant, in China there have been tremendous changes with regard to family planning policy; especially the move towards a national two-child policy. There is no way to suggest that the research may have led to this. However, it is clear that the 'message' of the research made its way to the decision makers in Beijing through constant communication, policymaker workshops and so on. In particular, the civil servants who were responsible for drafting the 2child policy laws were present at the workshops where I set out the rationale for removing family planning restrictions based on the evidence in the project.
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

Description Influencing design of new model for global population projections
Geographic Reach Multiple continents/international 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Impact Policymakers all over the world turn to population forecasts produced by the United Nations (UN) as the key source of authoritative projections on future population trends. Known as the World Population Prospects (WPP), these forecasts are hugely significant in formulating policy, particularly in developing countries and emerging economies where much of the future population growth will be concentrated. Identifying a shortcoming in the UN's 2010 forecast, Dr Stuart Basten from the University of Oxford offered the UN an alternative view. As a result, the UN's redesigned WPP for 2012-2013 provides a forecast which is not only more in tune with current evidence, but is based on a stronger methodology for use in the future.
Description Work with Chinese Government
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact As noted in the impact section, I have worked closely with the Chinese Government, and the NHFPC in particular. My research contributed towards internal discussions relating to the move to a national two-child policy.
Description ESRC Oxford Impact Accelerator Award
Amount £7,450 (GBP)
Funding ID C0RYSL00 
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department ESRC Doctoral Training Centre
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2013 
End 05/2018
Description OUP Fell Fund
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 01/2017
Description Collaboration with National Taiwan University 
Organisation National Taiwan University
Country Taiwan, Province of China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Developing collaboration with organisation to assist in performing qualitative interviews in years 2/3 of project.
Start Year 2012
Description Collaboration with Peking University 
Organisation Peking University
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Developing collaboration with organisation to assist in performing qualitative interviews in years 2/3 of project.
Start Year 2012
Description Qualitative project in Beijing 
Organisation Beijing Administrative College
Country China 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Capacity building and joint working on coding and interviewing as part of qualitative component of project
Collaborator Contribution Capacity building and joint working on coding and interviewing as part of qualitative component of project
Impact Qualitative component of project
Start Year 2012
Description Qualitative project in Beijing funding 
Organisation Federation of Population Associations
Country Finland 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Co-ordinating the qualitative research project in Beijing and Taiwan
Collaborator Contribution Providing financial support for qualitative project.
Impact Qualitative project outcomes (future).
Start Year 2012
Description Changing norms regarding one child families in China: fact or fiction? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact The family planning restrictions in China (often misunderstood as a universal 'One Child Policy') is one of the most comprehensive 'population policies' in the world. Recently, however, it has come under increasing scrutiny in terms of its effectiveness, the demographic consequences (in terms of very low fertility, ageing and skewed sex ratio) as well as on a human rights basis. In this paper we use information from a meta-review of fertility ideals and intentions in China to explore the extent to which small family sizes have become socialised and normalised within China and, hence, suggest whether the family planning restrictions in their current form are, to a degree, redundant. We conclude that even when taking into account potential misreporting, stated childbearing preferences in both urban and rural China show remarkable similarities to elsewhere in East Asia. We suggest that reform of the current family planning regime in China is unlikely to lead to a significant increase in the fertility rate.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013