- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
The reform of China’s One Child Policy, which restricts most couples to having a single child, has taken a tiny step in the right direction. On Nov. 15, the Chinese government announced it would loosen the policy, declaring that "a couple within which one partner is an only child" — dandu in Chinese — "may have two children." (The current policy, which is not always widely enforced, allows couples living in certain areas where both partners are only children to have two children.) The announcement followed the Third Plenum, a major four-day meeting of Chinese top officials, who promised "comprehensive and deepening" reforms to address China’s economic and social issues. But Chinese demographers and population experts have called for the wholesale repeal of the One Child Policy for years — and they find the new measures too little, too late.
How late? At least two decades. Independent scholar He Yafu, the author of Population Crisis, a book about China’s aging population problem, wrote on Nov. 15 that family planning laws should have been eliminated as early as 1991. In his book, He argued that the prolonged suppression of the birthrate would lead to a labor force too small to support a growing number of aging people.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. In 2011, Yuan Gang, a professor of government at China’s prestigious Peking University, called the One Child Policy "national suicide," citing China’s low birthrate and aging population, which he said would cause the country to "grow old before it grows rich." Yuan and He were among 40 scholars from some of China’s most prestigious universities to sign an open letter to the Chinese government in August 2012 calling for the immediate abandonment of the One Child Policy. The letter argued that no matter what changes were made, the population of working age adults would begin to shrink in 2015, causing labor shortages. "What China should really be doing," they wrote, "is encouraging people to have children." According to demographer Wang Guangzhou of the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, dandu couples comprise a "rather small" portion of the population. By contrast, many experts argue that only a total and immediate repeal of the One Child Policy can help China avoid a full-blown demographic crisis.
Chinese officials have repeatedly emphasized that change to the One Child Policy will come "step by step." But the country faces an acute imbalance between its young and old populations, one that will take decades to rectify. Most subject matter experts feel that the government would do well to move far more quickly. When it comes China’s babies, baby steps just won’t do.