After decades of enforcing abortion policies, why is now China encouraging citizens to have more children?
Nearly four decades after Beijing authorities began its efforts to restrict the number of babies Chinese women could have, using draconian measures such as the one-child policy to fulfill their will, the government is now encouraging its citizens to have more children. China’s society, with a population of 1.37 billion inhabitants, has an aging problem, and the government is trying to reverse that.
China’s aging society problem appears to be worsening every year, and the latest official statistics reveal that both its birth and marriage rates have dropped significantly. Several factors have led to this situation. On the one hand, there is the growth in life expectancy of the average Chinese, which in the last half-century has gone from 57.6 years to 76.7, according to World Bank data. According to the firm Statista, by the year 2020, it is estimated that there will be 250 million people over 60 years of age, but that figure will soar within two decades to 426 million (30 percent of the total population).
But the bad news doesn’t end there. While these two variables are growing, the working-age population is continuously decreasing since 2010, a trend that is expected to continue in the future (up to 100 million fewer workers by 2035, according to a recent study by the Chinese government). A dangerous combination that, along with the lack of an adequate social security system and a low birth rate of 1.6 children per woman, threatens to turn the population pyramid into a rhombus that undermines the economic resources of the state and Chinese families.
The beginning of this scenario took shape with the imposition of the brutal one-child policy back in 1979, when the law was promulgated by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Since then, Communist leaders argued for decades that this authoritarian social experiment at gigantic scale helped them to control population growth and to fight poverty. However, in 2013, the government itself acknowledged the implications of the law on the aging of its population and the current imbalance in the male/female ratio — it is estimated that there are approximately 33.5 million more men than women in the country — and started allowing couples in which both were single children to have two sons if they wished. A few years later, the option of having two children was extended to all the citizens.
According to Chen Youhua, a demographer from Nanjing University quoted in The South China Morning Post, the lower birth rate was mainly to do with a drop in the number of women at childbearing age — a population structure resulting from the low birth rate in the 1990s.
Aware that a demographic crisis could jeopardize economic development and undermine the stability and authority of the Communist Party, officials have set to work to stimulate procreation among its citizens with a new pack of aggressive policies. A recent editorial in the People’s Daily — the official communication body of the Chinese Communist Party — proclaimed that “having children is not only a family affair but also a state affair.”
Many experts criticize this aggressive population drive by the Chinese authorities and the consequences that it may have on the future of that society and women civil liberties. “Officials may now intervene in pro-natalist policies just as aggressively as they did in anti-natalist policies,” Mary Gallagher, a China affairs expert and political science professor at the University of Michigan, commented in an interview to The Guardian. “This could have very negative effects on the position of women in the labor market, in society and in the family.”
Under these new policies, provinces such as Liaoning already offer tax incentives for couples to encourage them to have children. Others have opted to extend maternity leave or consider bonuses in education or housing for each new child they have. The new Civil Code, which will enter into force in 2020, also bets on taking measures favorable to the birth rate.
In the meantime, 3 million couples registered their marriages with the Ministry of Civil Affairs in the first quarter nationwide, compared to nearly 4.3 million in the same period in 2013, which represents a substantial decrease of 30 percent. The decline in the marriage rate was most pronounced in Ningxia, one of China’s poorest areas, last year, where it fell by almost 13 percent from 2016. Shanghai experienced the second largest drop, with 12 percent, according to the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics.
However, despite the government’s policy on recent years, the “baby boom” they expected has not materialized, only 17.58 million babies were born in mainland China last year, compared to the 241 million people aged over 60, according to the latest report of Chinese National Health Commission figures. According to the same commision, the country’s birth rate fell last year to 12.43 births per thousand people — down from a record high of 12.95 in 2016. Fifty-one percent of those newborns were not the first child in their families.
As in many other modern societies, the unstoppable rise in the cost of housing and education, and the rise on the incorporation of more women into the labor market explains why young people are less and less in a hurry to have children. A survey by Zhaopin.com, a job recruitment site, found that 33 percent of women had their pay cut after giving birth and 36 percent were demoted. The desire to have more children is limited. As it happens in many countries, the economic cost of educating a second child, or a home that can accommodate at least four people, drives many young couples back. Couples, often single children themselves, have been instilled all their lives that the ideal family model was that of a father, a mother and a single child.
Meanwhile, analysts believe that these “family planning” laws hopefully should be a short time away from being eradicated. The last step toward dismantling these policies was recorded a few days ago. The Chinese National Health Commission announced that three departments responsible for implementing family planning policies had been eliminated and that a new department has been created instead that will concentrate “population monitoring and family development,” which would be tantamount to the definitive phasing out of the birth control systems that have led to this situation.
However, many believe that the end of restrictions comes too late and that new policies aimed at encouraging women to have more children will not help straighten the situation if it is not accompanied by a more sustainable social security project that can bear the weight of such social mobility.
“It’s quite clear that the Chinese government is increasingly alarmed at the low birth rate and the failure to produce the expected boost in births by easing the one-child policy,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China,” in an interview to The Guardian. But “whatever policy they implement, they will continue to control women’s reproductive rights.”
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