A meeting of top Chinese leaders that concluded last week left the world with much to ponder. One issue in particular triggered huge excitement: Loosening of the one-child policy. But this is also likely going to be the greatest disappointment in terms of contribution to China’s development.
At some unspecified point in time China will allow couples in which one person is an only child to have two babies. Under the current rules, only couples in which both persons have no siblings can have two children.
Since 1980 the country has restricted most families to one child. Officials at the time fretted about the results of a massive population on scarce resources. Between 1950 and 1970 the Chinese population exploded from 550 million to 830 million.
Today’s China is different place and the policy change finalized last week at the Third Plenum, a meeting of top leaders, is long overdue. As officials argue that population control kept a lid on the problems China faced during its baby boom decades ago, critics point to the many failings of the one-child policy.
Over three decades millions of babies have been forcibly aborted, some in unimaginably horrible circumstances. Cities are now populated by nuclear families, in which one child has to take care of two parents and four grandparents. Pressure on young people is mounting. The true costs of this social strain are only just beginning to become apparent.
On a national scale a looming demographic problem could derail the country’s growth. China’s economy boomed on the back of the cheap labor of hundreds of millions of migrant workers. They are not being replaced fast enough. According to estimates by the US Census Bureau, China’s population is expected to peak in 2025, and begin declining by 2050. The situation for some demographers is dire: Fertility rates in cities such as Shanghai are at world-record lows.
Allowing one more child in some families will not solve any of the above. Fundamentally, young couples, especially in cities, are wary of having more than one child. The cost of raising a baby is soaring – most parents buy expensive imported infant food because they don’t trust the quality of local products. Housing prices have skyrocketed out of reach of many.
Just because they can have more babies doesn’t mean they will. Exemptions to the one-child rule introduced in the past decade or so for urban couples in which both persons had no siblings, as well as for ethnic minorities and some rural families, have not significantly boosted birth rates.
Quantifying the boost to the population yields various results. Lu Ting, China economist at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch, projects that women of child birth age at this moment could produce up to 9.5 million more babies. Wang Feng, a demographer at Fudan University, sees no more than 1-2 million extra kids over the next three years. Neither of these figures is particularly meaningful and won’t substantially add to the labor force.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Wang said China would need to raise its infant fertility rate by 25% from 1.5 to 2.1 to maintain a stable population – something no country has ever achieved before.
Even if millions of couples decided to hop into bed tonight and reproduce, the state still seeks to stay on top of things. China will not experience a short-term population spurt and will carry out “annual population planning” to prevent large fluctuations, Wang Peian, deputy director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told the official Xinhua News Agency.
Some observers cling to a positive: Easing the one-child policy is an improvement in human rights and personal freedom, with the government giving its people more choice. That is too generous. In fact, it’s not much more than an easy populist measure. Lu, the economist, called it one of the “low hanging fruits” that Beijing could reach for in this round of reforms.
China needs more babies. Its social and economic development relies on a stable pool of young people. This reform falls short of what is needed to reverse the prevailing demographic trends. Only the complete removal of child control restrictions will do.
But even if Beijing took this option there would be tremendous difficulties in getting it implemented. The family planning commission, which has around 500,000 full-time employees, would be stripped of its principal mission. Local government officials would also stand to lose out on their chance to pocket some of the billions of yuan they collect from families that illegally have more than one-child; those revenues topped US$2.7 billion in 2012.