Throughout the past three decades, China’s “family planning” policies have sought to control population growth. The one-child policy, in particular, has wrecked many families’ lives, forcing millions of pregnant women, by some estimates, to receive abortions or else pay heavy fines for having more than one child.
The state’s “family planning” offices decide how many children a family can have based on their circumstances, such as whether they live in rural areas, where more labor is needed to support a family, or in the city, where most couples can only support one child.
But decades later, the effects of the one-child policy has so skewed the Chinese population’s demographics that the regime has now reversed course. Recently, the state has been testing the waters by having some media report on proposals to push couples into having more children.
On Aug. 14, Xinhua Daily, a state-run newspaper in Jiangsu Province, published an article titled “To Raise Fertility: A New Task for China’s Demographic Development in the New Era,” in which it raised the prospect of establishing a national “birth fund.”
The birth fund would require all working Chinese citizens under the age of 40, regardless of gender, to transfer a certain portion of their salary to this fund—meant to alleviate the costs of childbirth—every year. When families give birth to a second child (or more children, if the state allows), they can apply to withdraw money from the fund. But for couples who don’t give birth to a second kid, money could only be withdrawn at the time of their retirement.
Two days later, Hu Jiye, a professor at China’s prestigious University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, voiced his support for the birth fund proposal in a media interview. He also suggested that the government impose extra taxes on DINK (double income, no kid) families in order to discourage citizens from not having children.
Both proposals immediately led to widespread criticism and debates among the public.
Many netizens complained about the regime’s various schemes to collect money from the people, while exerting control over citizens’ bodies and family sizes. Some reflected that the state’s current attitudes are such a sharp reversal from the violent enforcement of the one-child policy in the past—during which the state compelled women to abort their children even during late stages of pregnancy.
“You are fined for giving birth to children, and you are required to pay if you don’t, I don’t know how to do this multiple-choice question,” said a popular comment online, referring to the regime’s contradictory policies.
China’s population is quickly aging. As of the end of 2017, the number of people aged 60 and over reached 241 million, representing 17.3 percent of the total population, according to census data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. That elderly population is expected to balloon to 487 million by 2050, or 34.9 percent of the projected total population, according to Wu Yuzhao, deputy director of the China National Committee on Aging.
However, China lacks the financial resources needed to support the elderly. Many provinces are in great debt and have been unable to issue all pension payments, burdening the central government to pay any shortfall.
Meanwhile, a dwindling workforce caused by low birthrates—a result of the longstanding one-child policy—hurts the country in sectors requiring manpower as well as economic growth in general.
A dwindling workforce and growing aging population also add additional burdens to the country’s social security system as fewer working-age citizens can pay for the welfare benefits of the current aging population.
Government Planning Backfires
Fearing an imminent demographic crisis, the regime decided to abolish its one-child policy in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children.
But rising living costs, from rent to infant formula, as well as factors such as costly education and pressure pregnant women face at the workplace, have made raising a second child in China easier said than done. Many young couples are declining to have a second child while given the offer, and some do not want to have any at all.
The lift of the “one child” ban thus did not have much long-term success, with births in China dropping from 17.86 million in 2016 to 17.23 million in 2017, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
While the government continued to issue policies encouraging fertility, including subsidies for families with more children and longer maternity and fraternity leaves, the statistics show little sign of improvement.
During the first half of 2018, the number of newborns in China dropped by 15 to 20 percent compared to a year earlier, implying that even fewer births are expected to take place in 2018 than 2017, according to the official newspaper of Jiangsu province, Xinhua Daily. The number of marriages also slid by 7 percent in 2017, marking it the fourth consecutive year of decline since 2014.
Punishment Ever Present
While the central government is firing all cylinders to attempt a baby boom, the lasting effect of the one child policy era is still present in some areas.
While many provinces have introduced measures encouraging couples to have more children, the nation’s system of fines for families who gave birth to more than their permitted number of children—first established in the 1980s—is still effective and was recently brought up a notch in some regions.
Zhecheng County in Henan Province, in central China, for example, launched a new round of campaign on July 5, 2018, to levy social maintenance fees from families with more than the permitted number of two children. The one-time fees are standardized to be three times the couple’s gross income in the year prior to the child’s birth.
On Aug. 6, the “planned birth” committee in Fujian Province in the southeast of China, published a notice announcing that a neighborhood of Fuzhou City has been amping up enforcement of “planned birth rules.” Individuals who fail to pay owed fees after two reminders will be placed on a “blacklist for personal social credit.”
China’s social credit system is being rolled out as another form of social control. All citizens will be assigned a score based on their levels of trustworthiness. Individuals who commit infractions in daily life will be penalized with travel bans, as well as limitations on shopping purchases, loan applications, and where one’s children can enroll in school.