The famous one-child policy (1980-2015) is one of the most consequential social engineering policies in history. Introduced in the closing years of the 1970’s and formalised across all provinces in 1980, the policy aimed to restrict the growth of China’s booming population to reduce the impact on resources and the potential threat to China’s economic development. This was achieved through a variety of financial incentives and punishments including fines and the loss of access to public services. The Chinese government estimated that 400 million births had been prevented by the policy.
From January 1 2016, all Chinese couples were permitted to have two children. The laws had not placed restrictions on all Chinese citizens, with exemptions for some ethnic minorities, families in rural areas when their first child was female and if their first child was disabled. In November 2013, the laws relaxed further to allow families to have two children if one of the parents was an only child. By the end of 2015 when the policy was abandoned, despite the policy being in place for 36 years, over half of all Chinese families were allowed to have a second child for 30 years.
Despite the increasing number of exemptions from the policy, the effort was hugely consequential. Although the birthrate in 1979 (2.75 children per woman) was significantly lower than its peak of 6.40 children per women in 1965, it successfully reduced it to 1.62 by 2016 according to the World Bank.
Moreover, this created a demographic time-bomb which created a cloud of uncertainty over China’s relentless economic growth. A cultural preference for boys and the availability of sex-selective abortions and female infanticide has led to 94 females being born for every 100 males. This means that there are 30 million more Chinese men than women. Professor Therese Hesketh (Global Health, UCL) has argued that this surplus of unmarried men (known as “guang gung” or “bare branches” because of their inability to marry and have children) is linked to increasing rates of anti-social behaviour and aggression among Chinese men. She also notes the anecdotal evidence of women being trafficked into marriage in order to make up for the deficit in eligible women. Although she argues it is impossible to determine whether this is due to the gender imbalance, testimonies of female North Korean refugees – such as those collected by Barbara Demick – who were married to low-status Chinese men could be seen to lend some credibility to the view that the gender imbalance is a contributing factor in human trafficking in China.
In addition, China faces a crisis of coping with an ageing population. It has been projected that by 2050 330 million Chinese citizens will be older than 65 and the population will be in decline. With fewer citizens earning money and circulating it back into the economy, younger citizens will be shouldering an increased share of the labour and tax burden of supporting the new retired demographic, exacerbating a heavily skewed dependency ratio. Most retirees will have been labourers with insufficient savings to support themselves, increasing the burden on an overstretched pension system which already made up 5.3% of GDP at the end of 2018.
Will the new two-child policy avert disaster? Currently, it looks like few Chinese families are choosing to have a second child: the 17.9 million births in 2016 may have marked an increase of 1.3 million, but it was half of what the government expected, according to the National Bureau of Statistic. The Bureau also predicted that there would be 20 million births in 2017, however the birthrate actually fell to 17.2 million.
In order to increase the birthrate and maintain it at or above the replacement rate of 2.1 children per women, state propaganda is not only going to have to overturn a generation’s worth of social conditioning as it tries to convince women to “have children for the country”, but act against the effects of women’s educational attainment and increased empowerment and the high cost of raising children. Globally, the more years of education a woman has under her belt, the fewer children she is likely to have according to UNESCO.
Chinese society, routed in Confucian ideals, is deeply patriarchal. There is already evidence that the government’s efforts to increase the birthrate have had adverse effects on women. The Economist has reported a survey by the website 51job.com which found 75% of companies were more reluctant to hire women after the two-child policy came into effect, possibly due to the prospect of supporting female employees through parental leave which could be perceived as costly for businesses. The same article also reported that 36% of women interviewed by Zhaopin reported being demoted after giving birth.
There is also evidence that the policy has led to attacks on women’s reproductive rights. While the one-child era is notorious for forced abortions and sterilisations, some Chinese feminists have voiced concerns that the Chinese government is trying to extend control over women’s bodies again. In 2018, new restrictions on abortion in Jianxi province were officially justified as a method of cracking down on sex-selective abortions, although some cynics have suspected it’s true motivations were more coercive.
In a sinister turn of events comparable to The Handmaid’s Tale, the Dutch ‘ethical hacker’ Victor Gevers has claimed to have found a database of ‘BreedReady’ women ranked according their potential ability to have children. The potential uses of this information – including ID numbers and addresses – in a country where the government has been accused of controlling its citizens through heavy surveillance are very worrying.
Although there are now indications China could abandon restrictions on the number of children families can have, it is worth considering the wider context of Chinese social policies and norms. International observers must continue to monitor women’s rights in China both in the contexts of allowing women to have as many and as few children as they want. What both the one and two-child policies clearly demonstrate, however, are the perils of viewing entire groups of people as resources.