As China’s political elite meets to select its new leaders, momentum is growing for the one child policy to be eased. But Paul Pennay, a Beijing-based freelance reporter, says reform may have downsides.
Most Chinese people of a certain age can effortlessly reel off a ditty Communist Party officials devised to help sell the ambitious one child policy: “It’s good to only have one child; we advocate late marriage, late birth, good-quality birth, and good-quality child-nurturing.”
Now, a reform-minded think thank with close ties to the central government is hoping policymakers will persuade parents to sing a two-child tune. A loose alliance of academics and former officials has led the charge to gradually revoke the one child policy, which they claim has resulted in a rapidly aging population, a shrinking labour force and a skewed gender ratio.
As China’s political elite meets in Beijing to select the country’s rulers for the next decade, the signs are that the new leaders are preparing to gradually move away from the policy.
Firstly, some history. The policy was presented in 1980 as a necessary, temporary measure that would benefit the country’s modernisation drive by reducing demand for limited resources. The policy was effectively implemented in urban centres, less so in rural areas. Many groups are exempt from the rule, including ethnic minorities and rural families whose first child was a girl (the one-and-a-half-child policy).
Opponents of the policy say that 63% of Chinese couples are limited to just one child; officials put this figure at closer to 36%. The official line today is that the policy prevented 400 million births over 30 years, helped lift millions out of poverty and has limited China’s carbon emissions.
Though never exactly popular, many Chinese resigned themselves to accepting the strict measures as a means to achieving a laudable national goal. In 2008, the Pew Research Center polled a representative sample of over 3000 people in China; about 76% of respondents approved the policy. But given recent revelations of abuses, support has waned. In a recent unscientific online poll hosted on Sina.com, over 80% of almost 300,000 respondents supported the recent report’s call for a gradual introduction of a two-child policy.
The modern-day advocates pushing for change are younger internationally-trained demographers and economists, plus some former family planning officials. They are up against a coalition of older academics, often with Marxist backgrounds, and officials from the Family Planning Commission.
“Then there’s the high cost of employing more than 500,000 full-time staff to administer the one child policy.”
Those pushing for reform have filed petitions and submitted motions to the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. They say China needs to readjust its policies to manage the risks posed by a rapidly aging society; the number of young workers will soon shrink, which will mark the end of what economists have often referred to as the country’s “demographic dividend” — a population structure that provided many new young workers.
Objections have long been raised by lawyers and human rights activists who have said that the policy led to abuses including, in some extreme cases, forced abortions and sterilisations. Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal advisor who fled home arrest in his village in Shandong to the US embassy in Beijing earlier this year, first earned the ire of officials when he offered legal advice to families that had claimed they were victims of over-zealous implementation of family planning policies. Another high-profile case involving a woman who was pressured into having a late-term abortion played out across the country’s blossoming social media platforms this Chinese summer.
In the past, when the media was more strictly controlled and before widespread internet access, many were unaware of the excesses that occurred at the local level as officials did everything in their power to meet population targets. Caixin, a well-regarded investigative business magazine, uncovered what it said was evidence of family planning officials abducting children from families that had broken the rules, to sell to orphanages.
On gender imbalance, the National Bureau of Statistics says the national s-x ratio at birth is 117.78 boys to every 100 girls in 2011, much higher than the normal ratio of between 103 and 108 male births for every 100 female births. (In Australia it’s 106.)
The policy has also led to unintended but tragic consequence of leaving close to a million couples childless after losing a child in an accident, through illness or in a disaster like the Wenchuan earthquake which killed close to 70,000 people in 2008. Then there’s the high cost of employing more than 500,000 full-time staff to administer the policy.
The most persuasive argument of those in favour of keeping the policy is resource scarcity; many are convinced that given environmental concerns and the national security implications of being reliant on others for energy and resources, the policy should stay. Cheng Enfu, dean of the Marxist research institute at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, argues that by sticking with strict family planning, China can continue to raise living standards and reduce environmental and employment problems.
According to Cheng, “under the one child policy, the year we reach zero population growth will be 2024. Under a two child policy system, this will be pushed to 2045. This will only further enlarge China’s immense population base and pose more challenges to environmental conversation, resource scarcity, urbanisation and employment.”
Speaking to friends and colleagues in China about how many children they want, they are often concerned about whether it’s fair for rich families to be able to simply pay the fines and flout the rules, while poorer families, especially those in government or public service jobs, are forced to toe the line. One acquaintance, currently applying to graduate schools in the US, drew on her experience growing up as a single child in the 1990s, and explained how she worried that any children she might have would grow up lonely if they didn’t have any siblings. About 90% of urban Chinese children and 60% of rural kids are growing up without siblings.
More material factors also matter — the cost of sending kinds to kindergarten, getting a place at a good school and affording decent healthcare. Many parents or young couples are unsure whether they’d be able to afford or have the time to raise more than one child. And recent moves to reconstruct the pension system means that the financial incentive to have multiple children may fade.
The central government in Beijing prefers to take a gradual approach to reform on most matters. So, although reform of the family planning system is almost assured, the debate is now more about the pace. China’s outgoing Premier has said that the government will “progressively improve” policies and many commentators noted that Hu Jintao mentioned it in an important speech to the 18th Party Congress last week.
But the government fears sending the wrong signal to the population. With a new leadership taking the reins in Beijing, we can expect that they will, step by cautious step, begin to move towards a two-child policy before doing away with limits altogether.