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China too late to abolish one-child policy?

Anadolu Agency Beijing correspondent underlines that as China marches onwards towards capitalism, the abandoning of its one-child policy may not necessarily create the workforce it needs

Satuk Buğra Kutlugün  | 01.01.2016 - Update : 05.01.2016
China too late to abolish one-child policy?


By Tevfik Durul


China has welcomed 2016 by ending its 35-year-long one-child policy in an effort to address its ageing population, but there are growing fears that urbanization, increased life costs and low income will not encourage families to have more children.

At the heart of the problem is a labor force that continues to age, as Beijing expresses worry of a slowing down in economic development. 

On Oct. 29, a communiqué issued by the Communist Party of China at the end of a four-day party gathering announced the abolishment of what has become known as its "Great Wall of Family Planning" -- allowing the country's 150 million couples who have been restricted to one child to have more children.

On Dec. 27, lawmakers then passed the communiqué into law, and for it to take effect on the first day of 2016, thus launching an avalanche of opinion and expectation.

According to a recent United Nations report appearing in Chinese media, China’s population -- presently at around 1.35 billion -- is estimated to start decreasing after hitting the 1.4 billion mark in 2026.

Prof. Dr. Zuo Xuejin, an expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has told Anadolu Agency that UN data has suggested that if it continues at present rates, the population is expected to drop by an astonishing 500 million by the end of the century.

Zuo and other experts have said, however, that if the intergenerational balance is to be corrected, couples need to have an average of 2.1 children, with some issuing warnings about the disadvantages to socio-economic development if that figure is not met.

According to Chinese state media, reaction to Beijing's “giant step for increasing the population in working age” has been met with a warm reaction by human rights groups, who see it as a representation of new freedoms, while foreign markets expect the policy to eventually lead to good results in a country where half of the female workforce of 43 million women is currently above 40 -- the last phase of fertility.

Meanwhile, research from the Shinan Marketable Securities company has stated that 5.6 million additional children are expected to be born between 2016 and 2018 as a result of the new policy, whereas 49.48 million were born in the three years prior to its introduction.

This is expected to create an extra market worth 300 billion Yuan ($47 billion) due to the increase in labor accompanying the growth in the consumption of baby products.

But many experts are unsure as to whether the policy will bear such great fruit. Chinese society has changed a great deal since 1979 when the policy was first introduced. Back then, the marrying age for men was 22 while women got married at 20 years of age. This year, according to data from the Health Committee of China, it has now risen to 25 with the first child expected at 26.

 History of one-child policy

In the 1950s, Chinese officials were greatly concerned with the question of how to balance development while the population continued to grow at an extraordinary pace. Back then families had four or five children since Mao Zedong and state officials thought that economic development could be secured through population growth, and encouraged families to have more kids to increase the dwindling post-war population.

To counter that growth, family planning was introduced in the 1970s under the motto of "one is no less, two is ideal, and three is too many". Couples were asked to have as few children as possible, and to leave pregnancy to as late as possible in their relationship. The birth rate fell to two to three children per household. 

By the 1980s, economic projections were no better -- the country then implementing a new policy of "one child for people in towns, 1.5 child for villagers".

To aid agricultural development, people living in rural areas -- where there is less supervision or additional privileges in areas without a dense population -- could have another child if the first was a girl.

By the 1990s, the birth rate had fallen to 1.5 children per household.

 Penalties for disobeying the new rules

Punishments have differentiated according to region and development rate. In rural areas, there was a 3,000 Yuan ($460) fine for every other child, while the penalty rose to 30,000 Yuan in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. 

Those who violated the new policies could also face unofficial social and political sanction. In some cases, families were driven to not registering newborns whatsoever. 

Those caught were publicly shamed and punished. Many lost their jobs, and many mothers were forced to be sterilized or have abortions -- punishments organizations such as Amnesty International classified as torture.

 The unwanted females

The one-child policy also started to challenge the traditional gender balance.

In the country's 2002 census, there were 102 males for every 100 females but by 2015 it had increased to 106 males for every 100 females born – a ratio that stands at 51.4 percent male to 48.5 percent female. 

This compares to 101 males per 100 females in Turkey, and 97 males to 100 females in the United States, according to CIA estimates for 2015.

If this trend is to continue at the same rate, there will be 30-40 million more males than females in China by 2020.

A major factor in this imbalance has been abortion. Couples have been known to abort female fetuses on learning of its sex due to the expectation that males have a stronger chance of gaining employment and a higher status in life than females.

While abortion is legal in China, there are laws prohibiting parents from learning the sex of fetuses.

In 2013, China's Health Ministry revealed that a whopping 336 million abortions have been performed under the one-child policy.

 Multiple children “troublesome and costly”

Outside of the policy, China’s changing social structure and lifestyles have impinged on couples' attitude to childbirth. As China has developed, the role of women in the workplace has grown and it has thus become unfavorable to balance a professional life with that of a mother.

Economically, rearing a child has also become more expensive -- particularly when it comes to education, which for professional Chinese is often the best money can buy.

Peer pressure -- and that dictated by the teachings of well respected and followed Chinese philosopher Confucius -- have led to many professional class Chinese -- the particular class that China hopes will bear more children -- enrolling their children in the best schools, and extra curricular activities to raise the chances that that child will one day rise above the millions of competitors in the race for the best employment prospects.

All of this is expensive, along with the rising demands of a youth influenced by Western consumerism. China's burgeoning middle class no longer wants to live with their parents but in a small flat, and housing prices are rising fast. A 90-square meter house in central Beijing costs 800,000 Yuan ($123,000), while the minimum wage is only 1400 Yuan ($216). 

More children means more expense -- an expense that many Chinese cannot afford. Evidence of this can be seen in that even though the ban on 8 million people having more than one child was lifted in Gansu Province in the 1990s, the birth rate remained steady at 1.5 children per household.

 Falling birth rates and an ageing population

High death and birth rates in China are becoming a problem of past. According to Prof. Dr. Zuo Xuejin, by 2030 China will enjoy the same life span and fertility rates of the West, meaning that in the next 20 years one person in every three will be of retirement age.

But whereas in the West it took 100 years to increase the average life span from 40 years to 70, China has reached that same point in just 50 years. And while fertility rates have dropped in the West over 75 years, China has achieved that same drop in just 25 years. 

As Chinese industry prospers and the new middle class start to enjoy the trappings of their Western counterparts, the young are burdened with looking after an enormous aging population - 100 million people who are over 60 years old.

This has also raised more pressure on the government, which has become obliged to dedicate more money from the treasury to health insurance –  thus raising taxes, which again burdens the young.

Adding to the problems is that as China moves from more traditional rural societies to a more capitalistic urban city-based, the link between the old and new world widens, leaving many children focusing on job prospects, education, consumerism and life enhancement and unable to bond with the generations before.

The problem has grown to such an extent that in 2013, a bill was passed that orders “the often-visiting of the elders.”  

With the introduction of the law, children have become responsible to fulfill their parents’ needs, with children legally bound to visit their parents often and call them occasionally. It also forces employers to give employees permission to see their parents.

 The changing obligation of the Chinese workforce

This all raises the question that even though the 30-year-old restrictions have been lifted, has the age-old obligation to the Party and state now changed? Does the new generation of urbanized Chinese – the very people that the government hopes will propel its burgeoning economy – not follow the collective responsibility of their elders and instead follow more capitalistic notions of self.

In this case, having more children may not be a viable option, as they instead focus on enhancing their own livelihoods, wealth and consumerist power, while constantly being reminded of the burden that parenting can bring.

* Tevfik Durul has been an Anadolu Agency correspondent since 2012, has lived in China for 11 years, speaks fluent Mandarin and has an MD in International Chinese Education

* Anadolu Agency correspondent Satuk Bugra Kutlugun contributed to this story from Ankara

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