Desperate attempt to reverse China's one-child policy

March 29, 2018 12:07
Government efforts to reverse the damage done by the 40-year-long one-child policy appear to have come too late. Photo: Reuters

During its recently concluded annual session, the National People’s Congress approved a proposal by the State Council scrapping the National Population and Family Planning Commission and replacing it with a new National Health Commission.

The new organizational arrangement indicates that our Beijing leaders have accepted the reality that the mandatory and brutal “one-child policy” that has been in place since 1978 is already outdated, and the country is facing a nationwide crisis of population aging and shrinking labor force.

Back in the early 1950s, Chairman Mao Zedong followed in the footsteps of the former Soviet Union and mounted a nationwide campaign to encourage couples to have as many children as possible. This resulted in the first wave of population explosion in the newly established People’s Republic.

As the slogan pitched by the Chinese officialdom in those days read: “The more people we have, the easier we can get things done.”

Then in the 1960s, the country witnessed its second baby boom since 1949. It is estimated that between 1962 and 1972, some 300 million babies were born.

It didn’t take long for the Communist Party to notice the profound and adverse implications of the unchecked population growth for the country in terms of the stress on its economy, society, resources and environment.

Simply put, China’s weak economic capacity at the time just couldn’t sustain such a large population.

It wasn’t until 1978 when Deng Xiaoping took power that he started to redress the situation by calling a halt to Mao’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” campaign in family planning and then strictly enforcing a one-child policy across the nation in order to curb population growth.

Over the years officials boasted that the one-child policy had successfully prevented at least 400 million births and greatly relieved the pressure on the national economy. But such remarkable “results” were actually achieved at the expense of basic human rights and the reproductive freedoms of couples.

For decades, families who violated the one-child policy were subjected to cruel punishments such as heavy fines, forced abortions, mandatory sterilizations, severe beatings and illegal custody.

But the one-child policy has turned out to be a double-edged sword: while it has substantially curbed population growth, it has also given rise to a whole bunch of negative ramifications on a national scale such as the acute gender imbalance, widespread “only child syndrome” and soaring elderly dependency ratio in society.

Suffice it to say that the policy has caused as much good as suffering to the people. Today, rapid population aging and shrinking labor force have replaced unchecked population growth as the most pressing issues facing China.

In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of population aging, Beijing relaxed the policy in 2013, this time allowing couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child.

Then in 2016, Beijing officially abolished the one-child policy and replaced it with an across-the-board “two-child policy”.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the government’s efforts to reverse the damage done by the 40-year-long policy came too late.

The two-child policy has proven far less appealing to young couples than the authorities initially estimated. As a result, the actual number of new births in 2017 fell short of the official forecast of 20.232 million by nearly 3 million.

Worse still, the number of second-born children accounted for 51.2 percent of the new births last year, suggesting that many young couples aren’t even interested in giving birth to a single child, let alone a second one.

According to numerous surveys, factors that are discouraging Chinese couples from having kids include skyrocketing property prices, the high cost of living, enormous child education expenses, insufficient elderly care services as well as depleted family values among the post-90s generation and millennials.

Studies also found that many young working women in China don’t want to give birth because they are concerned about the impact of having children on their career advancement.

To boost the country's birth rate and combat public reluctance to have kids, there are signs the government is reverting to old tricks such as “glorifying” prolific mothers through state propaganda and warning young women about potential pregnancy risks after the age of 29.

And if the propaganda campaign doesn’t work, the authorities may introduce further measures such as providing tax concessions for young couples, allowing premarital pregnancy or even demanding that party members set an example to the public by giving birth to more kids themselves.

Under the overwhelming need to serve “national interests”, it seems reproductive freedom has never been considered a basic human right in the eyes of party officials.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor