October 29 marked the day when China’s controversial one-child limit was finally laid to rest. After 35 years, the shift from a one-child to a two-child restriction is only a partial victory, but for many it is a victory worth savoring.
China-watchers have been quick to note that this relaxation is too little too late: an overdue response to an aging population, a population that will perhaps get old before it gets rich. Nine percent of the population is over 65, and increasingly families are characterized by the pressures of a 4-2-1 structure: four grandparents and two parents being supported by one child.
Inherent is the assumption the one-child policy was too successful. One figure commonly cited is that the policy prevented the births of 400 million children since its implementation. This, however, must be scrutinized.
The origins of the one-child policy lie in the 1970s wan xi shao or “later-longer-fewer” policy. It dramatically lowered birth rates by encouraging couples to marry and have children later, to wait longer between births, and to have fewer children. This was followed by a limit of two children per family in 1977. Some scholars estimate that three-quarters of the decline in fertility since 1970 occurred before the one-child policy was launched.
The problem was that during the 1970s population statistics were rough estimates at best. The Chinese government was still concerned that wan xi shao policy would not reduce the growing population sufficiently. They felt the population would grow too fast to be supported, and a one-child policy for all families was introduced in 1979. It might be imagined that a policy of such magnitude was carefully planned by demographers and politicians, and would be deemed an absolute necessity. In fact, the idea to restrict families to one child each was originally conceived by a group of Chinese rocket scientists. It was a reactionary policy based on the Chinese government’s fear of an exploding population that would slow down economic advances.
True, there was another decline in fertility since 1980, but can this be attributed to economic development, not coercive enforcement of birth limits? Across the world, higher standards of living lead to reduced fertility almost without exception. China’s neighboring countries are a testament to this phenomenon. Given that China’s economic growth since the 1980s has been dubbed an “economic miracle,” with or without state restriction China’s fertility rates would have dropped.
So loosening the one-child policy might not be the difference that makes the difference to China’s demographic trajectory. The policy change announced in late October was always a question of “if” rather than “when.” Indeed, perhaps this will have little impact on the goals of policymakers in Beijing. It seems that almost fifty percent of China’s population do not necessarily want two children; this sentiment is especially prevalent among urban dwellers, who tend to be the better-educated middle class. This was illustrated in November 2013 when the state announced that citizens were allowed to have two children if either member of the couple was an only child themselves – a relaxation that affected mainly urban citizens. Despite estimates that the change would stimulate 2 million extra births a year, only 700,000 couples applied to have a second in 2014.
Meanwhile, many of the rural population are already having two children, and will be unaffected by the policy modification. Rural residents tend to live in poorer conditions than their urban counterparts, are granted less state welfare, and have more limited educational opportunities. This leads to an important distinction: fewer have pensions. While a one-child limit was always, unsurprisingly, unpopular; in the countryside it was harder to police. Urban citizens have traditionally worked in danwei (work units), and so could be monitored and restricted from having children, in the countryside the reach of the state was weaker. The policy in the countryside was quickly relaxed so that couples whose first child was a girl could have a second child. This relaxation eased the burden on rural families – many of whom were determined to have a male child, as sons typically care for their parents in old age in China. Without a son they would have no elderly support.
Meanwhile, numerous parents had a second child in secret, particularly in rural areas or among parents from rural areas temporarily living in cities. The punishment for transgressing birthing policies has always been significant. Depending on the location of residence, fines could be as much as four to eight times the family’s disposable income. Parents have had assets seized, bank accounts frozen, and been detained for 15 days at a time. Unless they paid the fine, the child’s birth would not be registered, and they would not have a document to prove their legal identity – the Chinese hukou (household register). In the 2010 census, it emerged that 13 million children had been denied a hukou because they were denied birth registration as a result of family planning policies, although others put the figure closer to 30 million. These children are prevented from obtaining state education beyond primary level. Still, despite these difficulties, parents who want two children have done so even with the one-child policy restriction.
So, despite the state easing birthing restrictions, in the cities most parents will not have more children. And in the countryside numerous parents who want two children are already having them. But the impact of slackening birth restrictions will be found beyond demographic statistics. In particular, the two-child policy will allow parents who would have previously paid fines to have two children without facing extortionate penalties and denial of birth registration to their children. The impact will be substantial for the well-being of their children. This is the importance of the relaxed two-child policy, and why it should be celebrated and not scorned. It will make a tangible difference for millions of families.
Likewise, social problems such as sex-selective abortions and child abandonment are still prevalent today. While not directly caused by the one-child policy, birthing restrictions exacerbated these issues. Some argue that abandonment or abortion of daughters in rural China stem from the issue that daughters do not have the social expectation to look after their biological parents in old age. By 2020, China will have an estimated 30 million bachelors — called guanggun, or “bare branches.” Of course, female child abandonment or sex-selective abortions might have taken place without the one-child policy. South Korea has faced similar problems even though births are not restricted by the state. Yet without a one-child policy, rural families with a son, who previously were prevented from having a second child, might now go on to have a second child without the pressure to have another boy.
In sum, the legacy of the one-child policy will be complex. In part at least it will be marked by human rights abuses, such as forced sterilization, forced abortions, and steep fines for those who transgressed the policies. The demographic value of restricting families to one child rather than allowing a natural population decline is still in question. Either way, China would have faced an aging population. Beijing policymakers will be keen to see whether the relaxation changes demographic figures. But the relief will be felt in the homes of millions of rural citizens.