The Chinese Communist Party has decided that all Chinese couples will soon be allowed to have a second child, rather than being restricted to only one, as some now are.
Foreign observers have generally greeted the apparent end of the one-child policy with euphoria, as if it somehow represents a new birth of reproductive freedom in China. All Girls Allowed, headed by former Chinese dissident Chai Ling, publicly “commend[ed] the Chinese leadership for taking this courageous step to publicly abolish a policy that has caused so much physical, emotional, and spiritual damage to the families in the nation.”
I take a little more jaundiced view: China is not backing away from draconian birth limits because Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has suddenly developed a conscience. No one in the senior leadership has ever lost any sleep over the 400 million unborn and newborn children their policy has killed over the past 35 years, or shed a tear for the hundreds of millions of young mothers forcibly given abortions and sterilized over this same period, or had a moment’s regret for China’s tens of millions of missing baby girls.
What keeps them up at night is the dawning realization that their misguided policy is crippling China’s future economic growth. For at least the past two years, China’s workforce has been shrinking. Last year, the potential workforce fell by 3.71 million, a significant number even by China’s standards. At the same time, the over-sixty population is exploding. According to United Nations projections, it is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching an astonishing 437 million. China is growing old before it grows rich, and the strains on China’s nascent pension programs will be enormous.
The parallels between China’s current demographic and economic malaise and Japan’s demographic and economic decline are striking. The Japanese economy has never really recovered from its “demographic recession” that began in the nineties, brought on by a shrinking workforce and a rapidly aging population. China may not recover either (as the leadership is now belatedly coming to understand) despite the move to a two-child policy.
This Doesn’t Change the Real Rules
But there is another reason, even more fundamental, why I am not celebrating the end of the one-child policy. Regardless of whether party leaders allow Chinese couples to have one, two, or even three children, the underlying policy has not—and probably will not—change.
What underlying policy? I am referring to the policy of “Planned Birth”—jihua shengyu in Chinese—under which the Chinese state, rather than the Chinese people, decides how many children are to be born in China each year.
It was none other than Chairman Mao himself, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, who first put the Planned Birth policy in place. The Great Helmsman, as he was known, decided way back in the 1950s that the five-year economic plans the Chinese Communist Party was drawing up should control not just production, but reproduction. And they have, ever since.
This is why the shift to a two-child policy is occurring as part of the next five-year plan, approved at the latest meeting of the CCP Central Committee. The official communiqué about the meeting, released by China’s official Xinhua News Agency on October 29, made clear that in the thirteenth Five-Year Economic Plan, China’s leaders have decided to ramp up both production and reproduction.
It’s Too Late—Culture Has Changed
The communiqué itself, written in the almost unreadable pastiche of slogans that the party resorts to on such occasions, reads: “Promote the balanced development of the population; resolutely carry out the basic policy of Planned Births; thoroughly implement the policy of each couple birthing two children; actively begin to address the aging of the population.”
Of course, it is already far too late to “rebalance” the population to stop its rapid aging. Those trends are already baked into the demographic cake, as it were. No spike in planned births, however robust, is going to offset the hundreds of millions of “planned” deaths that preceded it.
Moreover, it is doubtful whether the new policy will have much impact at all. When the one-child policy has been relaxed previously—first for rural couples whose first child was a girl, then for all rural couples, then for urban couples where both the husband and wife were only children—the results have been underwhelming.
The last tweaking of the Planned Birth policy, which occurred just two years ago, was particularly disappointing to party leaders hoping for a baby boomlet. The government had “announced” that couples in which only one spouse was an only child would be allowed two children, and planned for 20 million births in 2014. Only 16.9 million babies actually materialized. Out of 11 million couples eligible to have a second child, only 1.45 million had applied for a “permit” by May of this year.
These figures suggest that, at least among China’s urban population, millions of couples are not eagerly waiting to fill the maternity wards. Forty years of anti-natal, anti-child propaganda has left its mark on the Chinese psyche. Few Chinese young people, who are themselves only children (and often the children of only children), are inclined to be generous when it comes to having children of their own. They would rather spend their limited incomes on themselves than, say, disposable diapers.
Next: Compulsory Childbearing
The Chinese are not alone in having below-replacement fertility. Every developed Asian country, from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan and Singapore, is suffering from the same demographic malaise. The difference is that these countries grew rich before they began growing old. China, as a result of its misguided one-child policy, is growing old before it is rich.
What will China’s leaders do if, as now appears likely, the Chinese people do not procreate up to plan? At present couples are permitted to have a second child, but I don’t expect the matter to end there. Soon they will be “encouraged,” then “motivated,” and finally “ordered” to bear children. A government bent on regulating its population under a state plan will do whatever necessary to “produce” the number of children it has ordered reproduced.
If this prediction sounds, well, a little overwrought, consider what China has been doing to young, pregnant mothers for the better part of two generations now.
At the outset of the one-child policy, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping ordered his officials to “Use whatever means you must” to force the birthrate down. “With the support of the Communist Party, you have nothing to fear,” he assured them. They took him at his word, and women were rounded up en masse to be given abortions, sterilized, or contracepted.
Even today, these kinds of abuses continue. As recently as two months ago, a mother was forced to sacrifice the life of her unborn child to save her husband’s job. She was eight months pregnant. Not long before, a Shaanxi woman was taken by force from her home by a gang of Planned Birth officials and given an abortion. She was seven months pregnant, according to reports from The Guardian.
The same party officials who have been responsible for decades of forced abortions and sterilizations would presumably have no qualms over enforcing mandatory pregnancy on young women, if they were ordered to do so.
North Korea Bans Birth Control
An example of just this kind of coercive pro-natal policy comes from neighboring North Korea, one of the most rigidly controlled countries on earth. Dictator Kim Jong-un, worried about the country’s falling birth rate, has just ordered OB-GYNS to stop inserting intrauterine devices, and has declared that abortion will henceforth be illegal.
If the higher birthrate called for by China’s new Planned Birth policy cannot be achieved voluntarily, China’s leaders may take similar actions. Childbearing may become mandatory. Regular pelvic examinations will be instituted to monitor menstrual cycles and plan pregnancies. Abortion may be forbidden.
What China’s leaders should do, of course, is abandon the Planned Birth policy altogether. They should allow couples to freely choose the number and spacing of their children, and have as many, or as few, as they desire. But since when has a one-party dictatorship ever voluntarily relinquished even a portion of the power that it wields?