Family Planning Reform: “Two-Child Policy”?

Amid a worsening demographic dilemma, there have been rumors that China’s new leadership might reform the controversial one-child policy. Bloomberg looks at a significant change being considered for vexed family planning regulations that may go into effect by 2015:

Policy makers are considering a change that would allow a second baby if either parent was a sole child, according to Xinhua. Currently both parents must be only children to qualify for a second birth. No time frame for a decision was mentioned in the report.

[...]“We believe the reform-minded President Xi and Premier Li will use the opportunity of abolishing the one-child policy to build up their authority, show their determination in making changes and convince the Chinese people that they do have a roadmap for reforms,” Hong Kong-based Bank of America Corp. economists Lu Ting and Zhi Xiaojia wrote in a report today, referring to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang.

The window for reform could be around the ruling Communist Party’s annual meeting in the fourth quarter or the annual session of the National People’s Congress in the first quarter of 2014, they said. [Source]

The possible amendment would indeed be a human rights breakthrough seemingly heaven-sent for the many Chinese who want a second child (which, according to recent polls is now more than half of the mainland population) and for those who fear the emotionally and financially devastating loss of their only child. However, the South China Morning Post notes that previous relaxations of the policy have failed to balance China’s skewed gender ratio, and that the proposed change would prove inadequate in providing care for aging dependents:

[...M]oving to a two-child policy will only delay the peak in China’s population by some five years from 2019 to 2025, before it goes into long-term decline (see the second chart).

Nor will relaxing the rules do much to boost China’s workforce and alleviate the strain of supporting a growing population of the elderly.

In the near term, it will cause workforce numbers to fall as more women take time off to have babies.

And in the longer run it will lead to an increase, not a decrease, in the dependency ratio, as working-age couples find themselves supporting an extra child, as well as four retired parents of their own.

For all that, any move to loosen the current rules should be applauded. The present policy is deeply repressive and a monstrous infringement of the most basic human freedoms. [Source]

While the estimated 9.5 million more babies per year that would come with the switch to a two-child policy could stimulate the economy even beyond balancing the ominously top-heavy population pyramid, Reuters’ Breaking Views has more on how this change would fail to have major economic impact or seriously shift the demographic landscape:

Phasing out the one-child policy may not be enough to persuade women to have more children, however. Economic growth is often associated with lower fertility as more educated women join the workforce. China’s fertility rate – the average number of children born to each woman – is currently estimated at around 1.4. Shanghai and Beijing have fertility rates of less than one, as an increasing number of women choose not to have children at all. Another factor is the soaring cost of living, particularly in cities.

Even if a two-child policy spurred women to have more children, the economic impact would be marginal. Today, China has 79 million urban women aged 20 to 39. Assume that two-thirds of those are restricted by the current policy, and that half of those that were allowed to have a second child under a revised rule did so over the next decade. That would mean 2.6 million extra babies a year, compared to the 16 million or so already likely to be born each year. Such a baby boom might lift consumer spending on nappies, strollers and baby food. But it would come too late to seriously shift China’s ageing demographics. [Source]

Despite any lack of major economic impact, the Wall Street Journal notes that “changes to the one-child policy would send a powerful signal that the new leaders in Beijing aren’t afraid to break with the past in order to plan for the future.” Amid reports analyzing the social benefits and economic impact of a more nearly universal two-child policy, the South China Morning Post notes that the talked-of change is still merely a possibility:

National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Qunan told the Beijing Morning Post that the commission was not necessarily referring to the number of children a couple can have when it alluded to policy changes in an action plan released on Tuesday.

[...]“It is incorrect to interpret ‘improving the family-planning policy’ as a renewed sign of relaxing the policy to allow for a second child,” Mao was quoted as saying. “Whether to allow couples to have two children … is a different matter from the family-planning policy revision.”

[...]Some mainland population experts expressed surprise at the spokesman’s remarks.

“As far as I know, support for changing the one-child policy also has a consensus among many high-ranking officials from the [commission],” said Huang Rongqing , a demographer with the Institute of Population Economics at Capital University of Economics and Business. “But only China’s top leadership has the final say.” [Source]

Also see prior CDT coverage of demographics and the one-child policy.