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Easing of China's one-child policy: Too little too late?

Publication Date : 29-12-2013


Baby boom won’t last, say experts

For 14 years, as Sun Yuejiu's father battled a muscular disease that left him bedridden till he died in 2009, her mother was also battling health problems such as gallstones.

In those years as a caregiver, during which she had to shuttle between hospital and home and dig into her savings for their medical expenses, Ms Sun, 34, said one question dogged her persistently: "Why am I alone?"

A single child, Sun, a lecturer at Changchun University of Technology in north-western Jilin province, is a product - she thinks of herself as a victim, though - of China's government policy that limits most couples to having only one child.

"I felt very lonely in caring for my parents. When I got married in 2000, I envied my husband for having a younger sister to share the responsibility of caring for their parents," Sun told The Sunday Times in Mandarin. Her mother is still in ill health.

In one of the most significant reforms unveiled by the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pledged to relax its strict family-planning policy and let more couples have more than one child.

Now, only three groups can do so: shuang du couples where husband and wife are from single-child families, those from the countryside whose first child is a girl or is handicapped, and those from ethnic minority groups.

The relaxed policy will allow couples of whom only one spouse is a single child, known as dan du, to have two children.

Across China, many dan du couples are weighing the pros and cons of having a second child even as the pledge made at the party's Third Plenum, a policy summit held last month, has reignited the debate over the one-child policy.

China's national legislature approved the policy change on Saturday and left its implementation to the local governments, some of which have pledged to start early next year.

Officials say the one-child policy has helped curb overpopulation and free up resources that fuelled the country's economic growth, but critics slam it for causing demographic woes such as a rapidly ageing population, gender imbalance and a shrinking workforce.

Also, some think the loosening up is too little, too late to boost birth rates, given how people have grown accustomed to having fewer children. Sceptics thus view it as a politically motivated move to improve the party's image rather than a genuine wish for more babies.

Fewer babies, please

China rolled out the one-child policy in 1979, restricting couples to only one child. At that time, it had just embarked on opening up and introducing market reforms under Deng Xiaoping, who re-emerged politically in 1978.

Better living standards were key goals that had to be realised so as to boost the legitimacy of the communist leadership after the decade- long traumatic Cultural Revolution. Chinese leaders wanted to make sure its population would not exceed 1.2 billion in 2000 so that its per capita income would hit US$1,000 by that year.

The policy also came at a time when a growing number of countries were concerned about population growth: Between 1976 and 1996, for instance, the number of governments who viewed their population growth rate as too high increased from 55 to 87, according to United Nations figures.

The Chinese government has credited the one-child policy with helping China have 400 million fewer babies, though some say this figure is an exaggeration and that its total fertility rate (TFR) would have fallen even without implementation of the policy.

China's TFR dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979, demographers Wang Feng, Cai Yong and Gu Baochang wrote in a paper published last year. Even without the policy, this would have fallen to 1.5 by 2010, they argued.

The rising costs of raising children, the drop in infant mortality and lifestyle changes such as better education and job opportunities for women and urbanisation would have contributed to the lower TRF.

China's current TFR of 1.5 to 1.6 is well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

What is for sure is that the policy fundamentally altered the structure of Chinese society. China's estimated 150 million couples with only one child accounted for more than a third of all families, they noted.

Luo Xiaochang, 35, grew up with four sisters as her playmates, who shared her toys and now her responsibilities in caring for their ageing parents. But she and her husband, an only child, have a five-year-old daughter and are unsure about adding to the family.

"We are too busy with our jobs and our parents are getting old. We don't really have the time or resources to take care of another child," said Ms Luo, a native of southern Jiangxi and a lecturer at the Nanchang Aviation University.

More babies, please?

Calls for the one-child policy to be scrapped grew in recent years as the proportion of young people in the population shrank compared to their elders aged 60 and above. Those 60 or above are expected to make up 25 per cent of the population by the mid-2030s, up from 14.3 per cent.

Last year, the number of working-age Chinese aged between 15 and 59 fell for the first time, by 3.45 million people, sparking not only fears that there will be fewer workers to support the aged in China, but also that China will grow old before it grows rich.

Human rights activists also slam the policy for triggering millions of forced abortions and sterilisation at the hands of officials eager to meet birth targets set by the central government, and female infanticide, given the preference for male children.

But a study by Renmin University estimates that the policy change may produce between one and two million more births a year. This would be at most a 12 per cent increase in the number of babies, going by the 16.35 million births last year.

Various reasons account for the lower-than-expected spike. Chinese couples are getting used to the idea of smaller families.

A government study in eastern Nanjing city found that 40 per cent of couples who qualify to have more than one child did not want to do so.

Take research assistant Guan Li, 30, and her university lecturer husband, 33, as an example. The Beijing locals have a one-year-old son.

She said: "It is a stretch to have another child based on our household income of 12,000 yuan (US$1,977). With one child, we can ensure that we give our best to him."
Still, the expected one to two million spike in births could produce knock-on effects in other areas.

Economists say it would boost domestic consumption. Just look at how the share prices of baby milk powder producers China Mengniu and Yashili International Holdings rose after the policy tweak was announced last month.

Having another child means increased expenses, especially for education, which makes up 15 to 25 per cent of household expenditure, according to urban household surveys from 2002 to 2006, noted London School of Economics economist Jin Keyu in a paper.

It also means that Chinese parents, most of whom rely on their children to support them financially in their old age, may feel more secure and hence save less and spend more, she added.

Professor John Wong of the East Asian Institute in Singapore said the relaxation of the policy "may just have a one-off effect on higher births, for four to five years - just to satisfy the pent-up demand for more children by some couples".

The short-term spike in number of births can help China keep its TFR at 1.6 instead of having it dip below 1.5, he told The Sunday Times. The relaxation of the one-child policy will also help bring about a better sex ratio, he added.

China has one of the most warped gender ratios in the world, with boys outnumbering girls 117 to 100 at birth.

But not all observers think the policy relaxation will redress the gender ratio imbalance.

Professor Li Xiaoping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who opposes the easing of China's family planning policy, believes that the relaxation will worsen the gender imbalance.

Many urban couples who want a second child will likely want boys, he argued. "They will worsen the gender ratio because they want to have sons badly."

He also worries that the increased births would put greater pressure on resources such as school places and jobs.

While this is debatable, what the relaxed policy will likely bring about is a rise in the stock of singles without siblings.

"Those who want a second child will look for mates who are the only child. They will be snatched up," said Li.

The projected extra births - which are estimated to number at least 25 million over the next 25 years - will buy China time to stave off the effects of a rapidly ageing population.

By 2050, one in three here is expected to be 60 or older.

Too little, too late?

But just how much time will China get?

According to the projections cited by Professor Yao Shujie of the University of Nottingham, who studies economies and Chinese sustainable development, this would be no more than 10 years. If the policy stays unchanged, China's current population of 1.35 billion is likely to peak at 1.41 billion people in 2028, he wrote in a blog.

Even if all Chinese were allowed to have a second child, this is likely to lead to at most 90 million more births, allowing China's population to grow for another 10 years to peak at about 1.5 billion by 2038, he added.

Most analysts agree however that the change is too little, too late and would not help solve China's demographic problems.

"It will slow down the decline of young people as a share of the total population. But it cannot change the population structure fundamentally," Yao told The Sunday Times.

Wong of the East Asian Institute said the boost in births will be short-lived.

"After this spurt in additional births, China's TFR will eventually fall back to its normal rate consistent with its existing socio-economic conditions," he added, citing factors such as the high cost of raising children and rising housing prices, which deter many from having more children.

Already in Shanghai, the TFR has fallen drastically to 0.7, below societies with low fertility rates such as Taiwan or Hong Kong. In Beijing, the TFR is below 1.
And even in the short term, the extra births are unlikely to add to China's shrinking labour force.

Peking University population expert Li Yongping pointed out that the new births will only join the workforce 20 years later.

"The slight increase will help relieve the ageing population situation but it can't really relieve the problem much as ageing is happening too quickly," he said.

Beijing local Josie Zhou, 37, and her husband, who are a dan du couple with a five-year- old girl named Izzie, worry that the policy relaxation has come too late for them to have another child.

"I feel very jiu jie (conflicted). I dreamt about this the night after the policy was announced. I want to have a second child but I don't really dare to. If I give birth at my age, I worry that the baby will not have good health," she told The Sunday Times.

But for some though, the policy change cannot come sooner, never mind the limited impact it will have in addressing the country's demographic woes.

Ms Sun and her husband, who will qualify as a dan du couple, are eager to have a second child so that their nine-year-old girl would have a playmate and also a sibling to help care for the couple in their old age.

"I'm determined not to let my daughter go through what I did," she said.


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