China Shifts to Two Child Policy

Following the CCP Central Committee’s fifth plenary session this week in Beijing, central authorities have announced an imminent reform to the one-child policy that will soon allow all married couples in China to have two children. Xinhua reports:

China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long , the Communist Party of China (CPC) announced after a key meeting on Thursday.

The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population, according to a communique issued after the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee held from Monday to Thursday.

The proposal must be approved by the top legislature before it is enacted.

China’s policy was first introduced in the late 1970s to rein in the surging population by limiting most urban couples to one child and most rural couples to two children, if the first child born was a girl. The policy was later relaxed to say that any parents could have a second child if they were both only children. [Source]

Implemented nationwide in 1979 in response to the social, economic, and environmental stress of China’s massive and then rapidly growing population, the “one-child policy” succeeded in averting hundreds of millions of births, but has long been contentious for its human rights implications and for contributing to the nation’s demographic distress. (For a timeline of the policy’s enaction and gradual reform, or for graphic representations of the its demographic impact, see coverage from The Guardian). The BBC’s John Sudworth describes the enforcement of the controversial policy, and the “demographic bomb” it helped to create:

The policy came into effect here [in coastal Rudong county, Jiangxi province] first, under Chairman Mao Zedong, and once it had become national policy, in 1979, Rudong’s diligent family planning officials went about enforcing it with unrivalled zeal and enthusiasm.

One retired senior official recently gave an interview to Chinese state media in which he describes hunting down pregnant women, carting them off to hospital and then guarding them during their forced abortions.

[…] Such practices have been by no means unique to Rudong, but Rudong became the national champion, held up as a “model” example and plastered with slogans proudly exclaiming the county’s victory over female fertility.

[…] About 30% of the population is now over the age of 50 – a demographic time bomb that holds up a terrifying spectre of rising social costs and falling worker numbers to a wider country that is only just a little way behind.

Seated around a dinner table in Rudong, I’m introduced to a family that perfectly sums up China’s population crisis. […] [Source]

Since 2013, authorities have been gradually easing the family planning policy, but measured reforms have so far failed to trigger a much needed baby boom. A report from Larry Elliot at The Guardian explains the demographic concerns that prompted Beijing to relax the policy, noting that nationwide two-child reform will likely be less effective at balancing the dependency ratio than the one-child policy was at limiting births:

Like many other countries, China faces the 1-2-4 problem in which each worker is responsible for two parents and four grandparents. The difference is that western countries have spent the past century building up their welfare systems, while China’s social safety net is far less developed.

Beijing can do nothing to stop the ageing of its population, but it can potentially arrest the increase in its dependency ratio by encouraging couples to have more children.

The key word here, though, is “potentially”. Unlike steel production, reproduction is not something that can be centrally planned and the leaders of the Communist party will find raising the birth rate no easy matter.

In part, that’s because the one-child policy has worked too well. A one-child family has increasingly been seen as the socially acceptable norm. Only children have grown up wanting to have only one child themselves, a trend particularly marked among young professionals in urban areas. […] [Source]

Following the announcement of the policy relaxation, many of the Chinese citizens questioned by The New York Times’ Chris Buckley expressed support for reform, but also shared reluctance to raise a second child based on economic concerns:

“Really, can you show me the news on your phone?” said Sun Bing, a 34-year old owner of a small technology store in Beijing who had his 2-year-old son by his side.

But most people interviewed voiced reluctance to take on a second child.

“Before I had my first child, I was hoping for the relaxation of the one-child policy,” said Chen Feng, a 36-year-old employee of a medical equipment company.

“I changed my mind after I gave birth to my daughter,” she added. “It takes a lot of energy to take care of a child, and you want to make sure the child will have a good future. So my husband and I have decided not to have a second child.”

Demographers and economists believe that the policy shift on population has come too late to help economic growth over the next decade. The cost and difficulty of child-rearing are likely to deter many eligible couples from having two children despite the relaxed rules, Mu Guangzong, a professor of demography at Peking University, said in a telephone interview. [Source]

Surveying similar reactions on Chinese social media, The New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow and Vanessa Piao note that many comments show anger that more substantial reform didn’t come earlier, and that officials have yet to acknowledge responsibility for the demographic repercussions of the decades-long policy:

“No more talking,” a 43-year-old mother of two who uses the name “Cat Mother Watermelon Mother” told group members on WeChat. “You all should start working hard to conceive starting from tonight. A month earlier could mean that the baby and the mother could be healthier.”

[…] Some people addressed the issue of the parents of single children killed by disease or accident who were too old to have another child. This particular group of parents have received increased sympathy in recent years as their plight began to surface in the media and attract attention.

[…] Weibo user “Y is a Woman Like Wind” wrote: “How can parents born in the 1950s and ’60s, who followed the [one-child] policy but have lost their only child, bear this relaxation of the policy?”

Others pointed out that the state had not released its grip on how many children citizens should have, but merely increased the number by one.

Weibo user “Starry Night of Religion” commented: “You get to decide whether we should have one kid or two. Now the population is aging, the number of families that lost their only child is increasing, the labor force is declining … Why is there no one who comes forward and claims responsibility for these full-blown crises? Have we really been liberated? We’re committing suicide!” [Source]

At Tea Leaf Nation, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian translates more angry Weibo comments from those negatively affected by the family planning policy, and those who see the government’s action motivated by economic necessity rather than compassion:

“When mom gave birth to me, we had to pay our entire family savings as a fine,” went the most up-voted comment on one Oct. 29 postannouncing the news on China’s Twitter-like Weibo, written by a user who identified himself as a young single male in China’s southwestern Sichuan province. “The country should compensate me.” After China began its long process of economic reform after 1978, the social services that had guaranteed at least a minimal standard of living in the previously poor communist country were systematically dismantled. Though reform brought spectacular economic growth, lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty, China still lacks a strong social safety net, such as universal healthcare or reliable unemployment insurance. Along with dramatic GDP growth has come an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, meaning that those not fortunate enough to maintain a comfortable nest egg may all too easily fall through the cracks. This was not the bargain the government struck with its citizens, some argue. […]

[…] Some Chinese web users seemed to believe that the change in policy reflected not a more compassionate government, but rather a cold economic calculus by a greedy few. One user posted a short parable on Oct. 29 about a wolf that controlled all the real estate, and would only give mortgages to the sheep at sky-high rates. The sheep were so deeply in debt that they could no longer afford to raise children, and so the number of sheep declined. “But the wolf realized that if it stayed like this, his family would have no more sheep to eat,” the parable concluded, “so he announced that the sheep could all be allotted one more birth.” The post quickly garnered thousands of likes. “Those who want to have a child — those who dare to have a child — what kind of dog-fart policy tries to manage that? ” wrote another user on Oct. 29. “It doesn’t matter how the economy is doing. People who don’t want to give birth have many different considerations. They don’t need your ubiquitous propaganda.” Lin also held to this view. In the long run,” he told FP, “the government needs more cows to milk.” [..] [Source]

More online reactions translated by Manya Koetse at What’s On Weibo also reflect public sentiment that the reforms have come too late and amid too unstable an economic background:

The news that China now allows a second child for all people has exploded on Weibo, with thousands of people sharing links and commenting on them. Overall, reactions do not seem to be very positive: “People who had the money to have a second child already had one, and people who don’t have the money still will not have a second one,” one woman says.

“I would love to have a second one,” one male netizen writes: “But my financial burdens simply do not allow it.”

[…] Other tell their stories of parents who faced fines or penalties when their mother was pregnant. “My heart feels heavy,” one user says. And although some receive the news with joy, the majority of people express their mixed feelings. [Source]

At The Guardian, Tom Phillips and Emma Graham-Harrison explain why mixed feelings exist by telling the stories of Chinese couples who lost their only child too late in life to have another, noting that the announcement did not address the many hukou-less Chinese born in violation of the policy over the last 35 years:

Liu Guofa lost his only child five years ago. The boy was only 17 when he died, but by then it was too late for his parents to try for another baby. Liu, now 46 and unemployed, is bracing himself for a lonely and impoverished old age, without the support and love his son was expected by society and tradition to provide.

Liu is one of millions of people whose lives were scarred by the Chinese government’s one-child policy. They include “orphaned” parents, who feel abandoned by the state after losing their only offspring, and “illegal” children, born into a life of legal limbo.

For many of them, the abrupt end to the 35-year-long policy announced by Beijing on Thursday came too late to stir up anything more than bitter memories. “It is too late for us now,” said Liu, who lives in central Henan province. “We can’t have another child. I feel helpless.”

[…] The group of “illegal” children living in the shadows of Chinese society are vulnerable to many kinds of abuse as a result. According to a 2010 census there are at least 13 million. But experts believe two or three times as many may have gone unregistered, because of fear of government reprisals.

It was not clear from Thursday’s announcement, released after government offices had closed for the day, whether some of that group might be able to retrospectively claim their full rights as Chinese citizens. […] [Source]

Human Rights Watch’s Maya Wang also notes that those penalized for violating the one-child policy will not be offered redress according to the the vague government statement, which she warns also suggests that women’s reproductive choices will continue to be severely limited by the state:

Despite the relaxation, the state continues to play a deeply intrusive role in women’s reproductive choices and bodily autonomy, controlling both the number of children a couple can have and the intervals at which they can have them. The announcement contains few details, but says the state “insists on the basic national policy of family planning” – suggesting that broader family-planning policies remain unchanged. So it’s likely family-planning officials will continue imposing regular coerced gynecological examinations to check for out-of-quota pregnancies and pressure many women to insert intra-uterine devices to prevent them. Officials have enforced birth quotas for couples by imposing heavy fines, euphemistically known as “social maintenance fees.” In 2012 alone, two-thirds of China’s provinces and municipalities raked in more than US$2.7 billion in fines imposed on people who violated the policy. They have also coerced parents by linking access to vital services, such as the household registration (“”) of children, which is a prerequisite for access to public services such as education, to compliance with family planning policies. […] [Source]

Amnesty International’s William Nee agrees that the policy relaxation does not go far enough:

 “The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough. Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The state has no business regulating how many children people have. If China is serious about respecting human rights, the government should immediately end such invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.” [Source]