Chinese county reins in birth-rate – without a one-child limit
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"People were just ignoring the policy and the government had to punish them" with fines and confiscations, recalls An Dousheng, an old man in Mao cap and collar, who headed Yicheng's family-planning unit in the 1980s. "It was difficult work. Ordinary people did not welcome the policy and did not cooperate. Our work was called 'the hardest job under the heavens.' "Skip to next paragraph
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"We were delighted by the new policy" when it was introduced in 1985, says Duan Chunmao. the Communist Party secretary in Ren Wang. "People felt it was more appropriate to their situation, and it helped cement links between the people and the party" that had been strained.
Twenty years on, its fruits are clear. Yicheng's fertility rate is below 9 per 1,000; the national average is 12 per 1,000. Yicheng's gender ratio at birth is 106 to 100, showing no distortion. Even more remarkably, large numbers of couples today choose to have only one child. Almost half the families in Ren Wang, for example, have only one child (though some may have a second later.)
"Nowadays, people don't want big families" says Ms. Yang. "It's very expensive – with fewer [kids] you can get richer faster."
Lü Yueping, a village shopkeeper, says she would have liked a grandson but both her daughters have had girls and neither is planning a second child. "My elder daughter is an accountant," she explains. "She is really busy."
"Mind-sets have changed a lot," says Cheng Fakui, former vice mayor of Yicheng in charge of family planning in the '80s. "A lot of people want to live for themselves, not just for their children."
China's economic development – reinforced by the one-child policy – has spread this mind-set across the countryside; children are expensive to educate, no longer so necessary for fieldwork, and increasingly unwilling to care for their aged parents – a prime motivation for having children.
The average Chinese couple now has 1.7 children, according to estimates by Renmin University's Population Studies Institute. That is only marginally more than the average number of children – 1.6 - allowed by current policy.
"Much of the decline in fertility can be traced to social and economic change," says Henry Winckler, a demographer at Columbia University in New York. "Probably relatively little ... resulted from making the small family mandatory and from using heavy-handed techniques to enforce it."
Liang, an outspoken critic of the policy, agrees. "[It] is like tilting at windmills," he scoffs. "If the policy Yicheng adopted was successful there, it could have been successfully adopted anywhere else in China."
Top officials at the National Population and Family Planning Commission dispute that. "Experiments are only experiments." points out Dr. Yu. "We dare not make a conclusion that the success" of Yicheng's policy "can represent other experiences."
Yu doubts that the enthusiasm with which Yicheng's leadership applied the policy – ensuring no third births and enforcing birth spacing – could be matched nationally.
In Yicheng, experts express disappointment at the government's failure to extend their policy elsewhere in China. One senior local official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggested that Beijing "is worried by population pressures and doesn't want to make any mistakes. They are very cautious."
Liang is blunter. "The leaders who make decisions don't understand the nuances of the Yicheng policy and don't want to learn about them," he complains.
Behind the reluctance, suggests Susan Greenhalgh, an expert on China's birth-control policy at the University of California, Irvine, lie wider considerations. The one-child policy is too deeply embedded in the post-Mao political consensus, she believes. "Advocating change of this ... involves political risks that, so far, no national political leader – or not enough of them – feel in a position to take."
Yicheng's time may now have come, however. Officials say the one-child policy will be maintained until 2010, but it is clear that they are studying alternatives.
"Now that the fertility rate is low, the government has expressed interest in researching directions for future adjustments in family-planning policy," says Yu. "Yicheng's experience should provide a good reference point for us."