China announced last week that it would loosen its famous “one-child” policy, enforced since 1980. The world’s most controversial birth-control policy, initially imposed as an emergency measure at the start of the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping, seems to finally be on its way out, more than a generation later.
This change, however, has come rather late, and it is still highly limited. Since its inception more than 30 years ago, China has made only one set of adjustments to the policy. In the mid-1980s, responding to a backlash of violence and abuse associated with enforcement of the policy, the government allowed rural couples with only a girl to have a second child (so the parents could try for a son) and, later on, couples who are both only children could have a second child. Now couples will be allowed to have two children if just one parent is an only child.
To justify the excessive measure of birth control, Chinese officials have repeatedly made the claim that the policy prevented 400 million births and contributed to the global success in population control. This is a wildly exaggerated claim. In China, the birthrate dropped to 15.6 per thousand in 1998 from 33.4 per thousand in 1970. In a comparison group consisting of 16 countries that had populations of over 1 million and a birthrate equal to or higher than China’s in 1970, the average birthrate dropped to 22 per thousand in 1998 from 35.6 per thousand in 1970. This suggests that without a coercive and costly policy, China’s birthrate would have declined as well, though maybe not as much.
One in three families in China – some 150 million households – now have only one child. Whereas the economic arguments for modifying the policy centered on the shrinkage in the number of young, able-bodied workers, and the rapid aging of the population, Chinese society’s concerns have centered on the breakdown in social relations, at a time of wrenching change. China is missing, in short, not only workers and taxpayers but also sons and daughters who can provide physical and emotional support to their parents. The policy has extracted tremendous sacrifice from the Chinese population over the years, and the costs are only beginning to become apparent.
History will look back at China’s one-child policy with bewilderment, even disbelief. Of all the countries in the world that faced the fear of population explosion in the latter half of the 20th century, only China went to such extremes, and for so long. Moreover, the policy was formulated and imposed on the population after China had already achieved most of its modern fertility decline, with the number of children expected for each couple more than halved between 1970 and 1979, from 5.8 to 2.7.
The leaders who succeeded Mao Zedong after his death in 1976 tended to associate political legitimacy with birth control, as the paramount goal of increasing per-capita income hinged on the rising ability of the government to provide food, education and employment, and on limiting the number of people sharing in the fruits of economic growth. The one-child policy was seen as key to the promise of rapidly rising prosperity and improvements in living conditions – which, to the government’s credit, lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
However, China’s long indecision and delay in phasing out the one-child policy has made its long-term demographic prospects only seem even more questionable. For over two decades, fertility levels in China have been very low: below the level of replacement, which is 2.1 children per couple. In the last decade, the level has been no more than 1.5, converging with China’s neighbors in East Asia, who are among the world’s lowest-fertility societies. In Shanghai, where many young couples have been allowed to have two children because both husband and wife were only children, the 2010 census found a fertility level of 0.7, one-third the replacement level. Within 20 years, for every elderly person receiving benefits, there will be only two taxpaying workers, down from five now – a challenge that advanced economies, from Germany to Japan, are struggling with.
The phasing-out of the one-child policy has overshadowed all the other decisions coming out of the influential twice-a-decade meeting known as the Third Plenum. The public has embraced the change with unexpected enthusiasm and good will. They see the change as a clear and irrevocable move, a break from empty promises. They see it as a regaining of personal freedoms. And they see it as a sign that the government in Beijing is finally catching up with the times. This seemingly small measure has generated enormous good will, and political capital, for China’s new leadership. It will also help blunt criticisms of abuses like forced abortions and sterilizations, and of the practice of sex-selective abortions.
But China has only begun to embark on the journey to end its one-child policy. Couples in which both husband and wife have a sibling are still left out. New only-child families, in other words, are still being created. The real test for China now is how quickly it can implement the new policy change – and then move on to phase out the policy completely. To squander that hard-earned political good will could be suicidal.
Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, is the author of “Boundaries and Categories: Rising Inequality in Post-Socialist Urban China.”
© The New York Times 2013