Family Planning Reform May Not Resolve Challenges

Family Planning Reform May Not Resolve Challenges

After reforming the nation’s one-child policy to a two-child policy in 2015, the Chinese government is now planning to eradicate family planning restrictions all together. The move to a two-child policy was aimed at boosting the nation’s birthrate to counter a declining work force and an aging population. However, in the years since the change was implemented, the expected rise in birthrates has not materialized, as the rising cost of living and other concerns make the prospect of raising a large family less appealing to China’s educated urban elite. From Dandan Li of Bloomberg News:

The State Council, China’s cabinet, has commissioned research on the repercussions of ending the country’s roughly four-decade-old policy and intends to enact the change nationwide, said the people, who asked not to be named while discussing government deliberations. The leadership wants to reduce the pace of aging in China’s population and remove a source of international criticism, one of the people said.

Proposals under discussion would replace the population-control policy with one called “independent fertility,” allowing people to decide how many children to have, the person said. The decision could be made as soon as the fourth quarter, the second person said, adding that the announcement might also be pushed into 2019.

[…] The move underscores growing concern among Chinese policy makers that more dramatic action is needed three years after allowing all families to have two children instead of one. Births fell 3.5 percent to 17.2 million nationwide last year, according to the Bureau of National Statistics, erasing almost half of the increase in births caused by relaxing the policy. [Source]

Bloomberg also reports on the challenges facing Chinese society after close to 40 years of stringent family planning policies, the impact of which may take decades to eradicate:

It could take decades to erase the drastic demographic effects of China’s one-child policy. High living costs, long work hours and surging child-care expenses mean that many couples feel that they can only afford to have one child — or none. A survey by, a job recruitment site, found that 33 percent of women had their pay cut after giving birth and 36 percent were demoted. While scrapping the cap altogether to allow more than two children would drive a faster recovery, Chinese policy makers have preferred slower change. In smaller cities, where couples have been more willing to have second children after the policy change, hospitals and pediatricians have been overwhelmed by the baby boom. Officials might need to build up medical and education facilities and work out new tax breaks for families before taking additional steps. Immigration isn’t likely to be an answer, as China has strict limits on foreign workers. Businesses aren’t waiting for the reinforcements. Labor shortages have pushed manufacturers in the Pearl River Delta, China’s export powerhouse across the border from Hong Kong, to invest in automation and robots. [Source]

Mei Fong, author of “One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment,” writes for the Lowy Institute that the damage to Chinese society from three decades of the one-child policy, combined with a global trend toward fewer children, means that the new policy won’t be any kind of panacea for China’s ills:

Scrapping the one-child policy won’t undo the damage it’s caused over more than thirty years, creating a population that’s becoming too male, too old, and too few to sustain strong economic growth. China’s rulers – impervious to criticisms of human rights abuse during the policy’s implementation – have been undoing the policy because it needs to replenish the country’s shrinking stock of workers.

But even if, and this is a big “if”, there is a significant uptick in births, those babies will take about twenty years to mature, which won’t solve China’s current gender imbalance or eldercare issues. Already the country boasts more single men than the total population of Australia (30 million), and will by 2050 have a retiree population larger than all Europe.

As it is, every indication suggests that China, like many other modern countries, will face declining birth rates. Previous attempts to loosen the policy, including the two-child move, have not resulted in a significant rise in births. Indeed, in 2017 the number of births actually fell.

Like other modern societies, China is dealing with the trend of shrinking families and rising infertility. Unlike some modern societies, however, Beijing is not putting much effort into building up its social safety net, subsidising education, or improving gender equity, all measures that have been proven to stem fertility drop-offs. [Source]

In rural areas, the consequences of the one-child policy, including a pervasive gender imbalance and pressures to care for the elderly population, have contributed to an increase in teenage pregnancies and marriages, according to a report in The Diplomat by Yuhong Pang:

As Defu Wang, an associate professor of sociology in Wuhan University, observed in his field research of early marriage in rural China, the high cost of marriage competition and intergenerational responsibilities have been the leading factors that behind the resurgence of early marriage.

The report Population Status of Children in China in 2015, published by UNICEF, shows this trend. Among 75 million adolescents between 15-19 years old, 1.2 million were married, and teenage women were married at twice the rate of young men. One in every 10 rural women aged 19 or below is married.

Liu Tongxia, a veteran obstetrician in Shandong, said inadequate sex education in China has increased the likelihood of unwanted teenage pregnancies in recent years. Last year alone, Liu met three teenage mothers who gave birth and many young girls who came to her for abortions. Compared to the infant’s health, she worries more about the influence of underage pregnancy on young mothers and their family. [Source]

Meanwhile, many urban families are choosing not to have children, despite government and societal pressures to procreate. Fan Yiying of Sixth Tone writes about the trend toward “DINK” (Double Income No Kids) families:

“My clients in their 30s and 40s are enjoying their DINK lifestyles,” Huang says. But she warns that when people get older, they often regret not having had children to depend on. The decision also invites social scrutiny. “Being DINK in China will inevitably mean facing pressure from your family and society, as the importance of having children is so deeply rooted in Chinese culture,” says Huang. She advises her clients to have children, calling parenthood “an indispensable life experience” and arguing that it doesn’t have to preclude work and other life goals.

But Wu, who is originally from eastern China’s Anhui province and moved to Beijing for a job in the publishing industry in 2008, fears a child would be a stumbling block for her career. Few companies in China provide nursing facilities, and Wu says her breast-feeding colleagues have no other option but to use cramped bathroom stalls. Mothers in her company fear losing their jobs, she says, and some have voluntarily switched to less demanding positions so they have time to take care of their children. “They complain to me nonstop, and I just feel sorry for them,” Wu says.

[…] In another corner of the city, 53-year-old Beijinger An Ke tells Sixth Tone that she felt the same as Wu when she was younger. Now, her friends praise her decision to remain child-free because she doesn’t have to look after any grandchildren, but An regrets not becoming a mother. “Whenever I meet young women who are hesitant to have children, I persuade them to do so, as there’s nothing in the world that is truly yours besides your own children,” An says. “Being a good mother should not be secondary to having a successful career.” [Source]

In a Twitter thread, Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women” and the forthcoming “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” outlined some of the political concerns that the Party faces by changing the family planning policies, arguing that even while relaxing existing restrictions, the government will still expect to be able to control women’s procreation:

Making a similar point, Foreign Policy’s James Palmer argues in his own Twitter thread that “The womb has always been at the service of the state”:


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