China has struck down its one-child policy, ending the strict population controls that helped define a country whose authoritarian reach extended into the most personal regions of its peoples’ lives.
All couples in China will now be able to have two children, as the country’s Communist leadership grapples with how to reshape its economic future at a time of slowing growth. The end of the policy after 35 years caps a tumultuous era of coercive family planning that often horrified the outside world and had become economically injurious as China faces a reckoning from the dramatic greying of its population.
“This is a big breakthrough for rational policy-making and, also of course, for respect for human rights,” said Willy Lam, a China expert who is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.
In China, the demise of the policy was met with online joking among couples pledging to act immediately to seize their new liberty – but also with sorrow among a generation whose lives have been deeply etched by the sacrifices it demanded, and questions about how much China can undo the profound changes it has brought.
China’s leadership presented it as part of a new five-year plan, an economic blueprint for coming years that seeks to set aside factories and coal mines in favour of high-tech patents and innovation – the kind of future that will need to be powered by a supply of young new talent. The cancellation of the one-child policy was made in a single sentence inside a lengthy communiqué that provides an overview of how China under Xi Jinping expects to change.
The change is expected to come into force in March, according to China’s state-run Xinhua news service, which cited Li Bin, leader of the feared National Health and Family Planning Commission, as saying it will “optimize the demographic structure, increase labour supply, ease pressure from the aging population and help improve the health of the economy.”
Barring a dramatic change, however, China is moving in the opposite direction, facing a deeply skewed national demographic curve with a fast-rising older population and fewer young people left to support them.
“Society is greying much faster than they had anticipated,” Mr. Lam said. “So the tax burden on workers and employees in the coming 10, 20 years will be very high.”
China’s work force is already falling, shedding 2.44 million people in 2013. The country’s overall population is expected to peak in 2026.
By 2030, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences expects China to be the greyest society on Earth. Today, the country counts almost five taxpayers for each person drawing a pension; by 2030, the ratio will fall to roughly 2:1.
“This population imbalance is very dangerous for the long-term development of the country,” said Ma Size, the grandson of Ma Yinchu, the man who advocated a two-child restriction in the 1950s but has nonetheless been credited in China as the father of the one-child policy.
Yet, demographers and economists have questioned the degree to which a loosening will actually reverse the trends, pointing to Asian neighbours, such as Japan and South Korea, where even government intervention has not succeeded in persuading many more parents to have children.
China’s two-child policy “will probably come with a small bump” in child bearing “in the next two or three years, but after that, its fertility rate will stay at its current level,” said Cai Yong, a population expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who is an expert on the one-child policy. “They should actually have abolished this long ago. China missed its best opportunity to relax the policy when people were still willing to have a second or even third child.”
China has claimed that its one-child policy averted 400 million births, but analysis by Dr. Cai and others has concluded that most of the reduction in child bearing happened before the policy was enacted. The one-child policy itself may have prevented 100 million births.
Its vigorous enforcement nonetheless led to some of the ugliest moments in the history of modern China, with countless fetuses forcibly extracted, millions of girls discarded in favour of boys and parents left in grief after losing only children too late in life to have any more.
“Our generation is luckier than our parents,” said Qiao Lingxiao, a Beijing mother expecting her second child in April. “I don’t have to the worry that if one day something horrible happens, I might lose my only child. That’s like losing all hope in life.”
Too little too late
Demographic danger already prompted a loosening in 2013 that allowed two children to any couple in which one person is an only child. (Minority groups and rural Chinese have for many years been granted larger families).
But the 2013 change showed how difficult it is to reverse a sliding birth rate, a problem few countries around the world have successfully addressed. Chinese authorities expected two million extra births to result. They got less than half that, as young parents in an increasingly urban country shy away from the money and square footage required to raise young families. About 12 per cent of those eligible have so far sought to have more children.
Meanwhile, many are choosing to forego children altogether. In Shanghai today, the average fertility rate is 0.7, far below the 2.1 rate that is needed to maintain a population. (The national fertility rate is 1.7.)
“The norm has changed. The norm now is one or none,” said Joan Kaufman, who in the early 1980s was in Beijing with the United Nations Population Fund. The move to two children is “probably too little too late,” she said.
That suggests China will struggle to achieve its goal of accelerating innovation, a problem its business community has sought to highlight. James Liang, the co-founder of Chinese travel service Ctrip, in 2012 published a book with research showing that aging societies face declining entrepreneurship and pointing to greying demographics as one of the reasons for Japan’s economic stagnation.
A society reshaped
“It is clear that China needs more young people,” Megan Greene, chief economist at Manulife, wrote Thursday. But while allowing two children “might alleviate China’s demographics on the margins, it is unlikely to significantly shift them.”
In part, that’s because the one-child policy has changed China. A country has been built on a low birth rate. “You have high competition, high expectations on education, everything is so costly and women want their autonomy, their career,” said Dr. Cai, the population expert. It means “the structure of society right now is not child-friendly.”
The ripples from the one-child policy, then, are unlikely to vanish any time soon. In so heavily restricting child bearing, China’s Communist Party forced its people into a deeper new acceptance of state constraint on their lives.
“It forced people to think about their fertility as being the ultimate rational choice,” Dr. Cai said. “You have to put a price tag on your sexual life and your love life. That will have a much longer lasting negative effect than anything else.
“That’s why many liberal thinkers think freedom is important. Because when you put so much structure around yourself, you start to work and live like a machine.”
Lives still lost
Enacted in 1980, the one-child policy has been called by experts the “most spectacular demographic experiment in history” and “one of the most draconian examples of government social engineering ever seen.” Its reach has produced an astonishing record of loss. In 1983 alone, China sterilized 20.7 million women and aborted 14.4 million pregnancies. The number of abortions in the past four decades has exceed 336 million.
It also stranded millions on the sidelines of society, barred from securing the rights of citizenship because they were born as second and third children to families who couldn’t afford the fines China has required. Without payment, authorities refused to assign the registration documents required for virtually every civic function in the country.
This summer, several families of such “ghost children” were asked to consult on a draft law that would set the fine, which is calculated according to average salaries, according to the year the additional child was born rather than having it escalate every 12 months with rising wages. Such a change would constitute significant relief for families struggling to raise children who, according to the Chinese state, do not officially exist – but it has yet to be issued.
On the online forums where families have gathered to push for change, the end of the one-child policy brought “cheers,” said Mr. Feng, who lost his government job when his wife got pregnant for a second time. Because of the sensitivity of his situation, he asked to be identified only by his surname. “I’m happy, but not like the others. Chinese people are supposed to have the right to have children. They are now merely giving it back to us.”