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Chinese province takes baby steps to change one-child policy

In a challenge to China’s controversial one-child policy, a regional leader has asked for permission from the central government to relax the policy in his area. Earlier this month, Zhang Feng, the head of Guangdong’s population commission, requested that some families be allowed to have a second child (specifically families in which one of the ...

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

In a challenge to China’s controversial one-child policy, a regional leader has asked for permission from the central government to relax the policy in his area. Earlier this month, Zhang Feng, the head of Guangdong’s population commission, requested that some families be allowed to have a second child (specifically families in which one of the parents is an only child). Surprisingly, a similar baby-step implemented two years ago in Shanghai — under which parents who were both single children were allowed, and even encouraged, to have two children — did not lead to a surge in additional kids. Many parents cited financial and time concerns as their rationale for limiting themselves to one child. Even Zhang Feng admitted in an interview with the Southern Metropolis News, a state-run paper in Guangdong, that "to allow the new policy will have little overall impact on population growth."

With a population of more than 104 million, Guangdong is currently China’s most populous province. Officials proposed this change in order to combat problems associated with a population that is rapidly aging. Zhang Feng explained that "the increase in population is still a big problem affecting our social and economic development…But in the long-term, aging will also be a problem."

Guangdong also has an important role in a very different method of circumventing the one-child policy. A growing number of mainland mothers use intermediaries — many of whom are based in Guangdong — to arrange for them to travel to, and give birth in, nearby Hong Kong, where the one-child policy does not apply.  According to government statistics, in 2010 47% of the babies born in Hong Kong were the children of mainland mothers.

In addition to avoiding fines imposed for disobeying the one-child policy, mothers who give birth in the territory reap a variety of other benefits. For example, their children are automatically considered residents of Hong Kong (although most children return to the mainland with their parents anyway), and as such, can travel abroad more freely. All of this doesn’t come cheap however, with prices at public hospitals (where approximately a quarter of the mainland babies are born) between HK$39,000 and HK$48,000 (approximately US$5,000 and US$6,150).  Prices at private hospitals are even higher.

Officials in both Hong Kong and mainland China have expressed concern over this trend. In April, worried that the record influx of mainland mothers would overload their healthcare system, Hong Kong announced that for the rest of the year mainland mothers will be prohibited from signing-up to give birth in public hospitals. The Hong Kong government has also recently restricted the number of spots available to non-locals at public hospitals, from 10,000 in 2011 to only 3,400 for 2012. The government has also considered raising the rates charged at public hospitals. And in Guangdong, members of the family planning committee recently ruled that second children, even those born outside the mainland, must be registered as "additional."

If Guangdong, however, is given permission to enact the proposed reforms to its one-child policy, Hong Kong’s moves to say "bye, bye, baby" may not be quite so necessary any more.

Rachel Brown is a research associate in Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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