China Changes Its One-Child Policy, but Will It Change China?
China Changes Its One-Child Policy, but Will It Change China?

The Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership emerged from a four-day-long meeting on Oct. 29, where it was supposed to chart a bold course of vigorous reform for China’s troubled economy, to see it grow through the next five years.

But the highest profile outcome of that meeting, the Communist Party’s Fifth Plenum, was a stated policy change that would take at least 20 years to bear any economic fruit—turning the infamous one-child policy into a two-child policy.

“China to abandon decades long One-Child Policy,” Party news agency Xinhua posted on Twitter (which is banned in China). “All Chinese couples will be allowed to have two children.”

State-run media said that the relaxation of birth control policies will alter China’s imbalanced demographic and improve the jittery economy in the short and long term. State media also defended the Party’s policy of population control.

“When the ship is going to sink, is the captain going to tell people: make love and we have more babies? Is that the right way to save the ship?”
— Cheng Xiaonong, CEO, Center for Modern China Studies

Experts, however, say that the “two-child” policy would only bring slight demographic changes, and won’t rescue China’s rapidly faltering growth.

Human rights groups said that the Party hasn’t loosened its draconian population control policy, and fertility-related human rights violations will continue.

Muddled Priorities

“Human resource is a long-term investment, for it has higher return and it lasts for a longer period of time,” reads an editorial on the new “two-child” policy by The Paper, a new state-funded online news website. “In the short term, it boosts investment and consumption. And fundamentally, the young people born because of this birth policy relaxation will provide an endless stream of energy for the revival of the Chinese people.”

Cheng Xiaonong, the CEO of the Center for Modern China Studies based in Princeton, New Jersey, and former aide to ex-general secretary Zhao Ziyang, said the Party has gotten its priorities mixed.

“Currently, China is undergoing the worst economic recession since 1978,” Cheng said in a telephone interview. “When the ship is going to sink, is the captain going to tell people: make love and we have more babies? Is that the right way to save the ship?”

Especially in the context of the Fifth Plenum, when the Party was supposed to present a plan for how to right China’s lagging economy, the announcement is worrisome, Cheng said. “If the baby issue is a priority the government has no proper, feasible choice. That is the real danger.”

Official figures put the third-quarter growth at 6.9 percent, below the year projection of 7 percent. But economists said the economy has been doing considerably worse for years, and recent numbers by Credit Suisse put the real growth rate at just over 3 percent.

‘Very Minor and Modest’

The “two-child” policy would improve China’s demographics—a rapidly aging population and gender balance skewed toward males—and provide more caregivers for the elderly, state media said.

According to latest data from the United Nations, China has a birth rate of 1.55 children per couple. The global average is 2.51, while the United States is 1.89. By 2050, over 36 percent of China’s population, now nearly 1.4 billion, will be over the age of 60.

According to a World DataBank report, the ratio of males to females in China is 119 males to 100 females. 

The “two-child” policy, however, is only expected to have a “very minor and modest” demographic and economic impact, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economist and demographer with the American Enterprise Institute, in a telephone interview.

Eberstadt, who has written extensively on East Asia and countries of the former Soviet Union, added that China’s neighbors who don’t practice birth control, like Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, already have very low levels of fertility, and the “damage has been done.”

“There might not be a demand for children in China again” despite the birth control relaxation, given that fertility rates are very low in the cities and lesser than expected in the rural areas, Eberstadt said. “Ironically, the government, while having been one of the causes, is unwilling to relinquish population control.”

William Wilson, a former chief economist with Ernst & Young, drew a similar conclusion. The Party’s birth control policy “won’t make much of a difference,” he said in a telephone interview. There could be a “marginal increase in the birthrate, but not much.”

While living in Beijing from 2009 to 2012, Wilson observed, “Young people wanted to have fun, and don’t want to have large families.” Today, incomes are still tight, and many are planning to still have one child.

Chinese Internet citizenry concurred.

“It is hard to get into a nursery, it is hard to be enrolled in school, and it is hard to get medical care … how can we possibly give birth?” wrote a Sina Weibo user from the city of Xi’an in central China. Sina Weibo is a popular Chinese microblogging site.

Big Brother Controlling Your Body

Human rights groups, who have been documenting the atrocities meted out by the one-child policy since its inception in the early 1980s, came out strongly condemning the regime’s tweak to its population control measures.

For years the Party’s National Health and Family Commission has performed forced abortions and sterilizations of couples who have more than a single child. Because of the Chinese preference for the male child, infanticide of females babies is common, and this has resulted in China’s current gender imbalance.

The regime, however, maintains that its control over its citizen’s reproduction is benign. “The final objective of population control is allowing people to live a better life, as well as effectively safeguarding civil rights,” wrote Party mouthpiece People’s Daily in an editorial after the “two-child” policy announcement.

“The state has no business regulating how many children people have,” retorted William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International, in a press release. “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.”

Besides, having a “two-child” policy won’t stop family planning officials from forcing pregnant mothers to abort their babies if they don’t have the documents to give birth.

“Couples will still have to have a birth permit for the first and the second child, or they may be subject to forced abortion,” writes Reggie Littlejohn, the founder and president of international NGO Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, in an email.

If a couple has a third child and no official birth permit when the new policy takes effect, they will likewise be forced to abort that child, Littlejohn added.

Steven Mosher, president of the Virginia-based Population Research Institute, condemned the regime’s population control tactic, and thinks the Party could even force couples to have children.

“Now couples are allowed to have a second child,” Mosher wrote in a press release.  “But don’t expect it to stop there. A government bent on controlling the fertility of its people will do whatever necessary to produce the number of children it thinks necessary.”

Frank Fang contributed to this report.

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