China’s new family planning policy ‘too little, too late’

Easing the one-child policy will deal a blow to corrupt officials, but it won’t ease demographic decline, analysts say

The decision announced Friday is expected to result in the births of 1 to 2 million children.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For Edward Du, the youngest of five children born in a small county in China's northeastern Shandong Province, Friday’s announcement that Beijing will ease the controversial one-child policy means a blow to local family planning officials, infamous for enforcing the policy with everything from heavy fines to forced abortions.

Du, 25, told Al Jazeera his parents were barely able to pay a fine demanded of them in the early 1990s to settle a dispute with local family planning officials over the family's multiple births.

Chinese courts have ruled that such fines are extralegal, but the practice persists.

"Rich people could always have many babies, as long as they paid the bill," Du said, calling the one-child policy's enforcement "a business."

"People working in family planning bureaus could become millionaires," Du said.

Previously, the one-child policy allowed couples where both parents were only children to have a second child. After a decision announced Friday, made at a meeting of China's leaders on social and economic reform, now just one of the parents needs to be an only child to have two children.

"Now, for those who are qualified, the money (spent on fines) is saved," Du said.

And the inherent economic survival of the fittest — spawned by a system in which only people with sufficient financial resources can procreate — is one step closer to being phased out.

The move "takes a little more power away from the family planning establishment, which makes a lot of money," Elizabeth Economy, a Chinese policy analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Al Jazeera.

Economy said that according to some Chinese estimates, family planning enforcers make roughly $2 billion per year in fines.

Beijing's new policy serves to slightly check the power of local officials policing reproduction. The move comes amid President Xi Jinping's sweeping anti-corruption campaign, which has targeted a number of high-profile officials for bribes and embezzlement as a means of tempering popular resentment over corruption in the public sector.  

A national dialogue on the enforcement of the one-child policy took Chinese social media by storm in June last year after graphic photos of a woman from Shaanxi province lying next to her aborted fetus after a forced abortion went viral.

Feng Jianmei, then 23, was unable to pay local officials the $6,300 fine they demanded to have a second child.

Feng's case added fuel to a long-running national debate both in government and online about the merits of the one-child policy, enacted in 1976 by Deng Xiaoping, Chairman Mao Zedong's successor who sparked China's economic success story by opening the economy to foreign investment.

Mao had been a proponent of unrestricted reproduction, vehemently arguing against fellow Communist Party leaders who had advocated for restrictions to curb overpopulation and urban crowding.

"The more people we are, the stronger we are," he famously said.

In 2012, around the time Feng became one in a series of women whose forced abortions drew public attention, party leaders discussed another economic imperative behind scaling back the one-child policy: China's impending demographic decline.

Chinese demographers estimate that the number of people above the age of 60, which now accounts for 14.3 percent of the population according to official figures, will skyrocket to a third of the population by 2050.

Facing 'demographic collapse'

Professor of Social Policy at Peking University Yuegen Xiong told Al Jazeera the decision announced Friday will serve to remedy the demographic aging that some say threatens the Chinese economy.

The prospective baby boom “will provide more laborers to be ready for future economic activities in the long run … which will help solve pension pressure in the long run and will be good for care for the elderly within the household,” Xiong said.

But the onus is on Chinese parents to make good on the new legislation. 

“To what extend it will affect Chinese economy remains to be seen as people's willingness to have a second child may not as high as expected,” said Xu Jianhua, a sociology professor at the University of Macau.

“Past research has shown that due to the urbanization and modernization, urban citizens' willingness to have more children is very low.”

Some say the potential boom isn’t large enough to offset demographic aging.

"China estimates that the new measure will only result in 1 to 2 million more children," Economy said. "It's not what I would call transformational."

China expert Gordon C. Chang said China may see a weakened workforce and a large fraction of the population dependent on social services before 2050. The policy change, he said, is simply "too little, too late."

"The labor force is already diminishing. You have a country almost in demographic collapse," Chang said, calling the addition of 1-2 million children to the nation's demographic make-up "like throwing a cup of water into the ocean.”

If the latest measure does gives the population "a small bump," as Economy suggested, it may take some time.

"It takes 16 years from now for a person to enter the workforce, if they're born today," Chang said, "This is the biggest social engineering project in history, and it's a disaster."

Chinese Web users were equally unenthusiastic about the newly amended policy's effects on the economy.

Beijing-headquartered news site ran a feature Friday entitled "'Two-child policy' won't solve economic development issues," citing the aging trend and the growing gender imbalance resulting from a social and economic preference for boys. 

Chang and Du explained that despite the new policy, many young Chinese are choosing to have only one child because of "social attitudes" and financial constraints.

Still, Economy observed that the reform is a rare "symbol" of progressivism in Beijing.

"It's one of the few areas we've seen that shows the liberalization of social policy in the country," she said.

In a poll, nearly 42 percent of close to 30,000 respondents said that they would not have a second child. An additional 14 percent selected the option, "whether I want to have a second child or not, it's a personal right."

It’s unusual for mainland China-based news sites to so prominently feature a dialogue on rights.

Economy observed that the move "opens a space for more discussion on family planning."

She added, however, that some rights abuses may persist as family planning officials continue to enforce curbs on procreation.

While Friday's decision "doesn't strike a death blow against forced abortions, it does represent a step in that direction," Economy said.

Al Jazeera

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