As China's one-child policy fades, new challenges lie ahead

The 'side effects' of what was long a pillar of Chinese policy have been severe. But Chinese families' responses to the shift may surprise.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/REUTERS
A child holds a placard bearing the name of his class as they all leave an elementary school in Beijing this month. The costs of raising a child may temper response to China's move to ease its one-child per family policy.

By promising to relax its “one child policy” the Chinese government has sounded the death knell for one of its most unpopular edicts, demographers here and abroad agree.

“This marks the beginning of the end of the one-child policy,” says Wang Feng, a population expert at the University of California, Irvine. “But they don’t want to go over a cliff so they’ll do it a step at a time.”

Leaders of the ruling Communist party emerged from a policy summit last week to announce that henceforth all Chinese couples in which just one partner is a single child will be allowed to have two children. Until now, only if both partners were single children have urban couples been allowed to breach the “one child” rule. The policy has several other exceptions, such as for rural and ethnic-minority communities. 

The new rules, which provincial governments are expected to introduce over the next few months, mark the latest in a series of steps the authorities have taken to loosen the “one child policy” as they try to counter its increasingly damaging side effects.

Introduced in 1979, the policy is officially credited with preventing 400 million births and keeping China’s population down to its current 1.3 billion.

But Chinese couples have long resented the government’s heavy-handed interference in their personal choices, and demographers have been warning that Beijing’s population policies are now doing the country more harm than good.

For a start, Chinese society is aging rapidly, laying an ever greater pension and health-care burden at the government’s doorstep. The proportion of citizens over 60 will have doubled by 2050 to nearly 35 percent, according to government forecasts.

The labor force, meanwhile, shrank last year for the first time, and will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future. Even if the new policy encourages more babies, they will not be in a position to start work for two decades. In the meantime, a smaller workforce means higher wages as employers compete to attract ever-scarcer staff. Wage inflation, combined with higher costs for land and other inputs, has pushed jobs offshore to Vietnam, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian nations where salaries are lower than in China.

At the same time, the one-child policy and Chinese parents’ preference for male children – combined with recourse to illegal sex-selective abortions – have led to a grave gender imbalance. Last year 118 boys were born for every 100 girls in China, a long-standing pattern that will leave an estimated 35 million young Chinese men without marriage partners over the next decade.

“The old policy was aimed at curbing population growth,” says Zhai Zhenwu, dean of the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. “Now the goal is to avoid a second ‘one-child generation.’”

Family tastes have changed

That may not be as easy as simply allowing people to have more children, warns Feng Xiaotian, a demographer at Nanjing University who has tracked changing attitudes to family size. Talk of a baby boom may be misplaced. 

Over the past three decades of the “one-child policy,” he says, “the social desire to have children has decreased. A single child is no longer considered unusual or creepy but quite normal.”

Prof. Feng’s studies suggest that only 30 to 40 percent of couples now allowed to have another child will actually choose to do so.

In Henan Province, for example, the last place to allow couples to have two children if both parents were themselves single children, officials had predicted an extra 18,000 births in the wake of the relaxation. In fact, according to the provincial family planning bureau, only about 600 couples applied for permission to have a second child in the two years since the rule change.

“China has changed,” says Prof. Wang, as young parents weigh the costs of raising a second child.

“The economic consequences of having children in China is very much the same as elsewhere in East Asia,” he points out, “and there is a strong regional culture of wanting children to be successful,” which is easier to ensure if parents can concentrate their time and money on just one child.

As in the rest of East Asia, agrees Prof. Zhai, “Chinese birth rates will fall in the long term because as society develops, couples do not need to raise children to take care of them in their old age – they can rely on welfare. The cost of raising kids is rising and the benefits are falling.”

The Chinese government has been extremely cautious about modifying a policy that has been the central pillar of its approach to population for the past three decades, but the authorities now appear to acknowledge that it is increasingly irrelevant.

In 10 years, predicts Zhai, Beijing will allow all couples to have two children, and once that final relaxation is in place, “the family planning system will have lost its purpose, and it will gradually fade away.” 

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