An “End” to China’s One Child Policy?

By Amy Hanser & Jialin Camille Li

China-one babyIn October 2015, the Chinese government announced new changes to the country’s birth planning policy, now allowing all couples to have two children.  This change, widely characterized outside of China as an “end” to the “one child policy,” was in fact just the most recent loosening of a policy that has historically been far more complex than simply limiting all Chinese families to a single child.  The motive behind the elimination of the single-child limit, as well as many of the earlier alterations to the policy that had already expanded the types of families allowed to have two children, has been concern about China’s rapidly aging population and the demographic imbalance that will result, as an increasingly elderly population must be supported by a (relatively) smaller working-age population.  While this is not a challenge unique to China, the aging population is understood to be a direct consequence of restrictive family planning policies that purportedly produced a rapid decline in fertility and by extension this demographic imbalance. If restricting family size  to a single child is the cause of the problem, then logically the solution lay in the policy change to allow families to have two children (and encouraged to do so with expanded maternity leave). Ironically, this policy change harkens back to the early 1970s, when the country introduced a two-child limit which was considered the appropriate size for urban families.

It is important to note, however, that this is not a case of the Chinese state taking a step back, or out, of the “private” realm of childbearing.  For starters, the policy change does not eliminate the entrenched institutions of birth planning in China, which includes the practice of filing for permission to have a child from the family planning office associated with the one of the parent’s residential permits. The loosening of birth planning restrictions on family size is in no way about reproductive freedom, for birth planning continues to be about asserting the “state’s” and “society’s” needs through women’s childbearing.  While for some this policy change opens up the opportunity to create the family size they desire, it also introduces new pressures on young women, many of whom do not wish to have larger families. Whereas an earlier generation of women were expected to limit their families to one child in order to support China’s population control efforts , a new generation of women is now expected to correct the policy mistakes of the past through their own child-bearing.  Ironically, the new generation of women are, for the most part, only children themselves and a product of state birth planning policies that are now characterized as creating problematic family forms—including spoiled only children—and distorted demographic distributions.  More and more, they will be confronted with new images of the ideal family in China—now with two children, not one.

Is the policy likely to result in a significant increase in births?  Unlike family limitations, increased family size is not as easily imposed.  The high cost of raising and educating a child and women’s high rates of employment mean that many couples do not want more than one child.  Ironically, the policy change may be premised on what scholars  Martin Whyte, Wang Feng and Yong Cai have characterized as “myths” about the effectiveness China’s population policies.  As some scholars have noted, the most rapid and dramatic declines in fertility in China occurred before the “one-child policy” was implemented in Chinese cities in 1980, largely because coercive forms of birth control limiting urban families to two children and rural families to three were introduced in the early 1970s.  And even without the state’s interventions in family planning decisions and family size, China’s birth rate would have dropped significantly since the 1980s with the country’s rapid pace of development.  It is interesting to note that both Hong Kong and Taiwan have very low fertility rates—Taiwan’s being among the lowest in the world, the same as Germany’s in 2015 and only slightly higher than Japan’s.

Amy Hanser is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia.  She is the author of Service Encounters: Class, Gender and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China (2008); much of her research focuses on Chinese consumers. She is an editorial board member for Gender & Society. 

Jialin Li is a student in the doctoral program in Sociology at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is currently writing a dissertation on how Chinese mothers in Shanghai navigate perceived risks during and after pregnancy.  Together, they have recently co-authored an article on women’s consumer strategies related to infant formula in urban China, titled “Opting Out? Gated Consumption, Infant Formula and China’s Affluent Urban Consumers.”

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