China’s bow to reproductive freedom

The ruling party, worried about a baby bust and aging society, allows married couples to have three children. Yet the popular reaction hints at a society more interested in basic rights than party dictates.

People bring their children to a public park on International Children's Day in Beijing, June 1.

On May 31, one of the world’s most massive experiments in social engineering got an update. China’s rulers raised the number of children that married couples are allowed to have to three. The last change, only six years ago, increased the number to two, up from the one-child restriction imposed more than four decades ago.

The Chinese people could not wait to debate this shift in social control by the governing Communist Party. On the social media platform Weibo, the hashtag “three-child policy is here” drew 660 million views in one day, or twice the size of the U.S. population. And when a survey on the site asked if people were ready to have three children, more than 90% of 31,000 respondents said they would “never think of it.” The survey was quickly taken down.

The world’s most populous country does not have democracy, but its people still have subtle ways to make sure their rights and interests are heard, especially about one of the most intimate decisions a person can make. Even after the party permitted two children per married couple in 2016, births in China have fallen over the past four years. And more women are outspoken about the party’s discriminatory policies that lead them to decide not to have children, such as the lack of workplace advancement as well as the high cost of education and housing.

From fearing a population boom in 1980, the party now fears a population bust that could leave too few young workers to pay for an aging population. Some demographers say the new three-child policy will do little. Despite that, party leader Xi Jinping decided not to allow married couples to have as many children as they want. He may want to preserve both this tool of control and the party’s image of ideological infallibility.

Yet, writes scholar Elizabeth Economy in the latest Foreign Affairs publication, Mr. Xi’s success as party leader “depends on the intellectual and economic support of the very constituencies his policies are disenfranchising.” China, for example, ranks high on gender disparity compared with other countries. Only 27.9% of party members are women.

“By refusing to address the challenges faced by women and denying them the ability to choose their own path, Beijing risks a future of lower GDP, lower birthrates, and greater societal conflict,” she writes.

Few Chinese dare to openly protest over their grievances. The party’s technological surveillance over dissent has grown only stronger. Yet glimpses of a desire for self-governance often break through, forcing the party to make an about-face on draconian policies. In asserting their reproductive rights, the people are making room for a free society someday.

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