Why China’s New Family-Planning Policy Hasn’t Worked


Population concerns vary. For most developed countries, declining birth rates have emerged as a common concern, whereas developing countries are struggling to keep up with population booms. China, too, is facing its own unique population worries. According to figures issued by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), the country’s fertility rate is between 1.7 and 1.8; the Beijing-based Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy has put the figure below 1.5. Either way, the fact that China’s fertility rate is lower than 2.1 per couple, which is the population replacement rate according to demographers, has alarmed policymakers. Following a number of “pilot programs” in small cities, China relaxed its decades-long family-planning policy in 2013, allowing couples to have two children if either parent is an only child. Before the policy was enacted, some scholars worried that it would trigger a baby boom, with its attendant concerns such as resource allocation.

The worry soon turned out to be misplaced. The new policy was estimated to affect 10 million to 20 million families, with authorities thinking that half might choose to have a second child. By the end of May 2014, however, only 271,600 couples had applied for permission to give birth again, with 241,300 successful applications. Among families who do try out the new policy, some face unintended consequences. On April 2, 2015, a 12-year-old girl committed suicide after she found out that her parents planned to have a second child. So what happened?

The answer may lie at least in part in policymakers’ failure to realize that many Chinese families are using their reflective system to decide, if not calculate, whether they should have a child or not. Richard Thaler, economist at the University of Chicago, and Cass Sunstein, professor at Harvard Law School, have pointed out that people think using one of two systems: the automatic system, which usually leads to an uncontrolled, unconscious, and rapid decision-making process, and the reflective system, which means taking time to think through a decision. There are many factors that contribute to Chinese families’ reliance on their reflective system in making child-birth decisions.

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One such factor comes from the contrast between the legacy of China’s one-child policy and the complexity of the current second-child permission application process, which also varies from province to province. Liberal paternalists Thaler and Sunstein described in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness the six principles of successful nudges, or good choice architecture, that is, “iNcentive, Understand mappings, Defaults, Give feedback, Expect error, and Structure complex choices.” In China’s new family-planning policy’s case, none of these principles are met.
China’s family-planning policy was first introduced in the late 1970s, as a means to rein in the surging population by limiting most urban couples to one child and most rural couples to two children, if the first child born was a girl. By 2011, according to the government, it had prevented some 400 million births. While the policy did produce a population control effect, it came at a price. Since it came into effect, the policy has resulted in 336 million legally mandated abortions, 196 million sterilizations, and the non-consensual insertion of 403 million intrauterine devices. Many procedures were brutally enforced on pregnant women. Even after China announced the relaxation of its one-child policy, the overall birth-control system remains in place and local governments are still reportedly trying to keep to population quotas.

These cases have a psychological impact on people, which comes into play when they are deciding whether they are truly allowed to have a second child or not. In other words, although the new policy has been introduced, the default “child quota” for each family – be it real or perceived – remains one. For many Chinese couples, relying on their reflective system, this means considerable reluctance to conclude that it is worthwhile, or even safe, to have a second child.

“A nudge clearly becomes a shove when it is mandatory, but the harder it is to opt out, the more a nudge turns into a shove,” said Thaler and Sunstein in an 2008 interview. This may also explain why China’s “second-child” policy stimulus has failed.

While China’s central policymakers announced its decision to loosen its decades-long population policy at the third plenary session of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on November 15, 2013, it offered no detailed timeline of when and how each province would put the new policy into place. Among provinces where the new policy is in effect, the implementation mechanism varies from place to place but all are tedious: In most cases, couples have to apply for permission before pregnancy; during the application process, couples have to provide their marriage certificate, house registration documents, and other proof signed by village/neighborhood committees. This burdensome paperwork requirement helps explain why the relaxation of the policy has failed to trigger a baby boom.

Another obstacle – a more institutional one – is the Health and Family Planning system itself. Chinese law requires local officials to submit fines for violation of the one-child policy – which China calls a “social maintenance fee” – to the national treasury, although they are then returned to local budgets. This serves as an incentive for local officials to use second children as a revenue source; in the past four decades, the fines have generated 2 trillion yuan ($324 billion). Together with other beneficiaries of the status quo, this creates a powerful force within the government that is resistant to change, as political scientist Thomas Penpinsky has suggested.

Compared to the 1970s, China now faces a vastly different scenario: a rapidly aging society with too few young people to support their parents and grandparents. The country’s labor pool declined in 2012 for the first time in almost 50 years. The ratio of taxpayers to pensioners is expected to drop from almost five to one to just over two to one by 2030. Apart from economic concerns, the country’s population policy is also causing some painful social issues – for one thing, it has left bereft parents who have lost their only child to illness or accident, a disadvantaged group that numbers about a million and grows by 76,000 each year.

In an online poll by China’s state media, nearly 64 percent of participants indicated that they would not have a second child even if China dropped the one-child policy altogether. Next time, when Chinese policymakers want to influence the behavior of their target audience, they might want to consider more carefully how its legacy policies have shaped public decision-making.

Formerly a journalist and news editor based in China, Lotus Yang Ruan is pursuing her Master’s degree in Asia Pacific policy studies at the University of British Columbia with her main research interest the Greater China Region.

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