This is the third and final installment in my series of posts on China’s One Child Policy. First, I explained the history of China’s family planning policies (including that there was never a blanket “one child” policy). In the second installment I discussed how the policy is enforced. Now I am finally getting around the the recent announcement that has western media all aflutter – a policy change many media outlets are calling “the end of the one child policy.”
Some of the most interesting conversations I had during my time in China were when a Chinese person got up the courage to ask me something they’d always wanted to know about foreigners. One of the recurring questions was how many children my country’s government allowed citizens to have. Sometimes it was phrased more like “Is it really true that your country’s government does not tell you how many children you can have? Can you really have as many as you want?” The follow up question was almost always about how many children a typical couple have. Most people thought it was amazing that people could have as many kids as they wanted and yet some chose not to have any; often the same people thought three children sounded like a big and expensive family. Any conversation that came close to these topics almost invariably included a comment from them that China has far too many people, with the common follow up that this holds China back from greater prosperity.
By the time I arrived in China in 2004, the rules allowed a second child for couples in which both partners were only children. I remember Chinese students at the university I attended talking about their plan to get married and have two children, a boy and a girl. On the other hand, they had also been taught for years that “one is enough” and that extra children are very expensive, as well as a burden on a career woman (obviously a woman is unfulfilled in any role other than full-time participation in the workforce, they would tell me).
China’s birth rate in the early 70s was 4.77%; by 2011 it was 1.64%. Population growth had slowed so far that the imbalance of a rapidly aging population was a greater problem. According to the original intention of the family planning policy (that it be a short term, single generation emergency measure to curb population growth) it was now time to make a change. In 2013 a further relaxing of the law allowed for a second child for any couple where ONE parent was an only child. This made 11 million couples qualifty for a second child; 1 million couples applied for a second child, and in 2014 there were 470,000 more births than in 2013.
In May this year reports abounded that there would be a further policy shift allowing two children across the board. Most expected the change to come in 2016, and while government representatives confirmed that such a change was being discussed, they also responded to rumours of an earlier rollout by saying no timetable had been set. In July the government was presented with a report outlining the benefits of such a policy change – information reportedly requested by Party leadership.
The announcement came last week during the release of the latest Five Year Plan, for the period of 2016-2020, which makes sense. In September 2010, around the time the previous five year plan was announced, a public statement from the government stated that the family planning policy would remain intact until at least 2015. October 2015 was time for the next five year plan, amd (unsurprisingly) the time chosen to announce a change.
This latest change allows for each couple to have two children. That’s it. Urban couples in which each partner has at least one sibling are now also allowed to have two children. Everyone else was already allowed two kids. It is certainly not a “scrapping” of the policy, as so many English language headlines have screamed. Amnesty International, who have always insisted that China’s Family Planning policies are “invasive and punitive,” are busy pointing this out. China still controls family planning, and none of the methods of enforcement discussed in my last post are likely to stop.
Meanwhile, in China, the response is far more lacklustre. Many Chinese, particularly in urban areas, are just not interested in having more children. The economic burden of raising an additional child is often cited, along with the amount of time required, or that “one is enough.” Reluctance to have a second child is common in post-1980s (those currently under 35). Following the 2013 rule relaxation, Beijing had only two-thirds of the additional births expected in 2014. A survey at the start of this year showed only 15% of married women under 45 in Shanghai intended to have a second child; just over half said “one is enough”. An online survey following the most recent announcement had about a third of people planning to have two kids, but only 2% were confident that finance wasn’t a problem.
None of this is surprising, I would think, after decades of the government telling people they really don’t want more than one child – that it’s too expensive and that “one is enough”. Many girls who daydreamed about two children in 2004 now look at the pressures of finance and household management and say “no thanks”!
I find the international amazement about the whole thing quite strange. One, the policy change was expected. Two, it isn’t as big a deal as people seem to be making out. It’s not so much “scrapping the one child policy” as an adjustment to a “two child policy”. And besides, heaps of Chinese people were already permitted to have two children. Finally, while the policy has been adjusted, there still is a policy which still needs to be enforced.