Continuing the Discussion: The End of China’s One-Child Policy

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Symbolic, Very Important


The announcement that China would be replacing its One Child Policy with a two child policy has provoked a variety of reactions. One of the most common is to say the easing of the policy simply doesn’t matter that much. Despite the name, the “one child” policy has for many years been anything but. Ethnic minorities have always been exempt. Families who have a daughter were allowed to have another child. Couples where both children were only children were allowed to have two children. Then, in 2013 couples where either child was an only child were allowed to have two children. In urban areas, the cost of raising a child is so high that many couples do not want more than one child. Given all this, it is reasonable to assume that the change in policy is more symbolic than anything else. However, it is possible for something to be symbolic and very important at the same time.

For almost 40 years, the Chinese state has emphasized the simple message that overpopulation is one of the most severe threats to China. State propaganda organs have relentlessly propagated the idea that “rén tài duō,” in other words, that China has too many people. A massive family planning apparatus has been constructed to put the vision of population control into practice. Though the initial goal of reducing China’s population to 700 million by 2050 proved unrealistic, the One Child Policy had an undeniable effect on China’s demographic trajectory. The massively skewed gender ratio and generational imbalance that it helped create will engender economic and social challenges far into the future.

With the lifting of the One Child Policy, the Chinese government has acknowledged that it has reached a new stage in its history. China may still face heavy resource pressure, but is no longer a “developing country” dealing with a countless new hungry mouths to feed. Rather, it is a middle-income country that must take decisive action to correct gender imbalances and build a stronger social safety net to protect what will soon be a massive cohort of retirees. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that it exists. For years, the Chinese government has put off admitting that one of its signature policies poses a grave threat to country’s future. While the two child policy may not be a panacea, it is an undeniable step in the right direction.


Money, Not Policy


Instituted in 1980 as a temporary policy measure to deal with explosive population growth and a potential shortage of resources, China’s One Child Policy seems to have been dealt its death blow last month. On Oct. 29, Xinhua news cited a statement from the Communist Party of China announcing their intent to change the One Child Policy to a two child policy. While the policy has its detractors and opponents, especially American presidential nominees decrying the draconian nature of the policy, in actuality this change is unlikely to have any major effects. From the time of the policy’s implementation, there have been exceptions and exemptions, which included exemptions for all ethnic minorities, exceptions for rural peasants having a daughter first, or those whose parents are both only children.

Another issue with the One Child Policy is how long it lasted. Its effects will be felt for at least a generation. Now 35 years old, the One Child Policy has ingrained a certain level of expectations for families. In China, the parents take care of the child until the child is old enough to take care of the parents. This generalization is not true of every family, but in many cases urban parents pay for the child’s education (through college, including high school, which is not provided by the state), along with buying the child a house and a car if they can afford it, to increase their marital prospects (especially true of male children). These are enormous costs for the family to bear and many of the Chinese urbanites I’ve spoken with say that finance will dictate whether or not they would have a second child, not a change in policy.

Even during the One Child Policy era, if you had enough money to pay the “social compensation fee” for having a second child then you could have one. It was a monetary decision for many families, just as it is now. Changing the law to allow families to have two children instead of one is long overdue, but I fear that it is too little, too late, and that it will take years, or potentially decades, to see a real increase in birthrate. The past 35 years have seen an enormous amount of change in China, but the One Child Policy was constant. Families have become used to taking raising one child; the costs of raising two are too prohibitive to see any major change any time soon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Edits were made the articles at 18:06 GMT on 18 November 2015.

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