China’s Two-Child Policy Doesn’t Mean Chinese Couples Will Have Two Kids

China’s change in family planning policy will allow couples to have two children instead of one, but that doesn’t mean all of them will spring for it.


For decades, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has controlled citizens’ family planning through strict policies that prevent most urban couples from having more than one child.

But as Beijing gradually relaxed the decades-old law, many Chinese, including peasants, minorities, and those who are wealthy or well-connected enough to afford fines, among others, have already found their way around the “one-child policy.” And in the case of high-ranking officials and the political elite, the government has a habit of looking the other way.

That means that Thursday’s announcement that the law will be officially changed to a “two-child policy” will have the greatest impact on those who couldn’t wriggle through earlier loopholes. But the new policy may not actually reduce Beijing’s level of involvement in family planning.

China’s controversial family laws were put in place in the 1970s amid fears the rapidly growing population would gobble up the country’s limited resources, and the one-child policy was officially adopted in 1979. Contraceptives were made widely available and those who broke the rules — even the country’s poorest — were heavily fined. Fines were increased over time, from hundreds of dollars in the policy’s early years to upwards of $150,000 today.

The law’s side effects quickly became apparent, and not just to critics in the West. Cultural preferences for boys meant that girls born as first children were sometimes abandoned, killed, or kept secret so the family could have a legal son. Couples were forced to undergo sterilization or abort their second child, creating the worst man-made gender gap in the world. Last year, roughly 115 boys were born for every 100 girls. Over time, the rules were relaxed again and again: first for peasants, who in the 1980s were allowed to try for a second child if their first was a girl or disabled, and later for some urban families in which the parents themselves were both single children. In 2013, families in which just one parent was a single child were granted the same permission.

Both in its inception, and now in its overhaul, the family-planning policy has sought to come to grips with demographics. In the 1970s, party leaders wanted to save natural resources and food. Today, though, China needs a fresh generation to replenish its currently massive workforce. After the country’s economic breakdown this summer, there are increasing fears that China’s artificially small younger generation is simply not big enough to create enough new workers to replace the old. The natural replacement rate to maintain a stable population is widely considered to be 2.1 children per one woman, but thanks in large part to exceptions, China’s rate in 2013 was 1.7.

Last year, China’s population reached 1.37 billion, but it is graying: more than 10 percent are older than 65. Other burgeoning countries have much younger — and much more balanced — populations. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, only 3 percent of the population are seniors.

This year, China’s National State Population and Family Planning Commission predicted that by 2020, the number of men of marrying age will outnumber their female counterparts by at least 30 million. And according to Chinese officials, that has dramatically increased the rate of divorce, especially in urban areas — a trend attributed in part to the more comfortable role women now hold in the country’s difficult marriage market.

Thursday’s move, which was announced at the close of the Fifth Plenum — a party conference that charted China’s social and economic path for the rest of the decade — doesn’t mean the party is beating a retreat from meddling in the personal affairs of its citizens. But it will, on paper at least, offer urban families who want a second child a chance to have one.

In reality, given China’s rising cost of living, economics may trump the Party’s decrees. With China’s rising cost of living, to have a second child may strain a family budget. Raising a child in China now costs some $3,745 a year — roughly half the country’s per-capita GDP.

In 2014, less than 3 percent of the 11 million couples eligible to have a second child chose to apply for permission.

And human rights watchdogs, including Amnesty International, warned Thursday that the two-child policy poses many of the same concerns as its predecessor did. Amnesty’s China researcher, William Nee, condemned the new policy, which still restricts couples from having three children or more, as “invasive and punitive controls over people’s decisions to plan families and have children.”

“Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture,” Nee said in a statement Thursday.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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