But is it too late to reverse the damage of the one-child era?
- By Mei FongMei Fong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment.
On Sept. 18, officials in the central Chinese city of Yichang sent an open letter urging Communist Party members to have a second child and help replenish the city’s falling birth rates. This follows a nationwide move to a two-child policy in early 2016, prompted by fears the country’s shrinking worker base could act as a continuing drag on economic growth.
In short, China’s unpopular and controversial system of population control known as “one-child” policy is becoming “have one more child” policy. But the move may be too little and too late for a country that has become synonymous with the most restrictive birth policies in the world.
The volte-face is electrifying, generating incredulity among China’s netizens. The letter appeared, of all places, on the website of Yichang’s local family planning commission, an organization historically tasked with enforcing stringent birth quotas by measures including compulsory sterilizations and abortions. Yet now that same organization exhorts the city’s civil servants of childbearing age to lead by example, peddling the slogan, “Doing it starts with me.” (At the time this article was written, the letter had been taken down; it now appears to be available.)
As a policy matter, China’s switch to the beginnings of a pronatalist policy is sensible. As with many other modern societies, family sizes in China have shrunk due to the combined forces of urbanization and female empowerment, which has created more opportunities for women.
Several countries have tried to stem the downturn in their own birth rates by offering financial incentives — cash payments called “baby bonuses,” as well as tax breaks. Others have been more blatant in telling their citizens to, quite simply, do it for their country. Italy just launched its first annual “Fertility Day,” a much criticized campaign that follows on the heels of similar movements in Denmark, South Korea, and Turkey. In 2010, South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare designated days when it turned off office lights early as “family days” in hopes its workers would go home and make babies.
What sets China apart, of course, is that decades ago the country launched, and then persisted in, the world’s longest-running anti-natal campaign. In the 1970s, the world was awash in fears that population growth would far outstrip the planet’s resources, prompting books such as The Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome, and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. In 1980, still in that milieu, China introduced harsh regulations that became known as the one-child policy and ended up putting about one-third of Chinese households — 90 percent in cities — under a one-child limit. Now, that vision seems outdated, and China recognizes it needs the birth of new workers to sustain growth. But the course of population decline, once set, is hard to reverse.
The Yichang open letter makes explicit the changes authorities have quietly been making to address China’s demographic decline. Beijing has been sending messages for some time now that Chinese women should reproduce more, using propaganda to stigmatize college-educated women who delay marriage as unappetizing “leftovers,” or sheng nu. A number of government-backed adult education seminars, called Confucian workshops, have sprung up across the country promoting “traditional” values, such as deference to men; Ding Xuan, a popular speaker, tells attendees at these workshops that strong women run the risk of cancer melting off “unwomanly” parts. Sexist movements aimed at shaming women into marriage are not new — witness Japanese media’s labeling of single women as “parasites” and insistence that wedding cake is “bad after 25.” But no state power has at its disposal as formidable an apparatus to control, disseminate, and accentuate its messages as China.
Grandparents are another weapon in China’s arsenal. The country’s so-called Little Emperor generation — spoiled only children being another side effect of the one-child policy — has elevated helicopter parenting to stratospheric heights. Parents in China meddle in their children’s decisions on where to work and whom to marry to a degree unheard of in the West. With only one offspring to minister to the needs of parents and grandparents — a phenomenon known in China as 4-2-1 — anxiety over the fragility of the urban Chinese family structure is high. With retirement ages among the earliest in the world (as early as 45 for some women), China’s seniors will at least have a lot of time to chivy their offspring into generating yet more offspring.
Such measures may not be enough to address the country’s dwindling numbers. For the past 20 years, China has seen birthrates below replacement level. If the trend continues, in one of the most dire estimates, China’s population could eventually decline close to its 1950 levels of about 500 million — a startling reversal for the world’s most populous nation.
Because it has sharply limited family size, China now faces a declining population at a far earlier stage of its economic growth than most European countries, which took about 50 years — twice as long as China — to arrive at a stage where their retirees outweigh their worker base. A declining, aging population is a first-world problem, but China hasn’t yet achieved first-world prosperity: It may be the world’s second-largest economy by size, but its per capita GDP is just one-sixth of South Korea’s and one-ninth of the United States’. Scandinavian countries have had the most (albeit limited) success bringing birthrates up by spending heavily on measures like generous parental leave and subsidized education. Political will aside, Beijing simply doesn’t have that kind of money.
China also has a distorted gender mix, another legacy of its planned birth policies. By limiting family size in a culture that has historically venerated sons, the one-child policy has caused, by some estimates, more than 60 million “missing” girls in China — those daughters who were never born, or were killed, or were given away. That means there are fewer women to have the babies Beijing suddenly wants.
In addition, Beijing must now fight to dislodge the effects of 30-plus years of propaganda pushing the one-child family as ideal. “For years, the government has been educating its people that birth planning is the best family style,” a young Chinese friend told me. “It means wealth, happiness, and a less crowded society. For me, brought up in a one-child family, it seems natural to bear only one child.”
If it’s somehow possible to nag people into having more children, then China will have an edge. But it’s unlikely that the Chinese Communist Party can employ the same kind of abusive tactics it used to reduce the population in order to accomplish the reverse. It’s far simpler to drag someone in for an abortion than to force someone to reproduce and rear children. Beijing may be taking a new tack in its birth policies, but the shadow of coercion still lingers.
Mei Fong is the author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.
Photo credit: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, Sept. 26, 2016: The open letter posted by the Yichang family planning commission appeared on Sept. 17, not Sept. 18, as stated in a previous version of this article.
Update, Sept. 26, 2016: The open letter, earlier reportedly taken down, is again available online. This article has been updated to reflect that.