China’s two-child policy is a landmark decision meant to bring more people into its fast-depleting work force. But are Chinese couples ready to take on this burden?
By Shastri Ramachandaran in Beijing
China’s decision to jettison its 35-year-old draconian one-child policy in favor of a new, universal two-child norm has far-reaching implications. Even as ex-perts on demography, eco-nomy, politics and social policy debate its pros and cons, there is agreement that the policy will change much, not only in China, but also in the world.
The first evidence of this was, predictably, visible in the stock market—share prices of companies which make baby food and nappies soared, bringing cheer to producers in the baby and mother-care industry. Big names in the recreational business were upbeat. Typical of this was Walt Disney, which is getting ready to open a theme park in Shanghai, applauding the two-child policy as “good timing”.
The October 29 announcement ending the one-child policy, which gained notoriety for its coercive implementation, is a landmark event of immense economic and political significance. In fact, some observers say this decision is almost as important as Deng Xiaoping’s signal to open up the economy for reforms in 1978.
It was the overriding compulsion to ensure the success of Dengist reforms that dictated the adoption of the one-child policy. However, there were excesses to China’s one-child policy—forced abortions and sterilizations, denial of residence permits and jobs and exclusion of “illegal” children. These affected a wider section of people than the thuggishly executed population control Indians suffered during the Emergency.
The Communist Party of China (CPC) credits the one-child policy with preventing 40 crore (400 million) births in the last 35 years, thus contributing to China’s turbo-charged growth since the 1980s. The reason why the two-child policy is being widely welcomed has to be seen in this context— strong-arm methods of enforcing Deng’s birth control policy will become a thing of the past. The horrors of that policy are now being openly recounted in the Chinese media. What emerges is that people feel somewhat liberated and freed of lurking fear, about which they could not speak in public. This life-changing decision for millions seems to be a positive one and which the state could not have avoided for much longer.
The decision is primarily political and its importance is underscored by the fact that the announcement was made in a communique released at the conclusion of a four-day conclave—Fifth Plenum—of the CPC’s 18th Central
Committee held in the last week of October. The main purpose of the plenum was to finalize China’s 13th Five-year Plan—the first since Xi Jinping became president—and to map the road ahead for the world’s second largest economy, which has had to contend with a falling growth rate in the last few years. China now aims to strive for a GDP growth rate of 6.5 to 7 percent during the five years of this Plan ending in 2020.
In giving up the one-child policy, the leadership has also tacitly revoked the political sanction that was presumed for its coercive enforcement. Questions remain whether there would be a liberal interpretation of the two-child policy. Will this put an end to discrimination and deprivation that “illegal” children (who predate the new policy) and their parents were subjected to until now?
The relaxation of the one-child rule began in 2013, but this did not apply to minorities and rural families. If either the husband or the wife was a single child, they were allowed two children. It was only a matter of time before the two-child policy was formally announced by the ruling party.
However, the economic impact of this decision is unlikely to be borne out at least in the near term. China’s economic slow-down has raised concerns about its ambition of emerging as an all-round, “moderately well-off society” in the CPC’s 100th year. As the official China Daily observed: “These five years are likely to be make or break, and the country will either be mired in the dreaded middle income trap, or survive the pains of transformation and accomplish a sustainable economic rebirth.”
An ageing population, with a decline in the number of those in the working age of 16-59, has added to worries. The aged not only do not contribute to the labor force but are a drag on the productivity of those in the working age group. This is especially so when young couples have to look after ageing parents in the absence of adequate social, structural or financial support from the state. A decline in the working population also means a decline in consumption and spending, which in turn, further weighs on an economy looking to boost growth through consumption, especially when exports are falling.
China’s ageing population, which was 110 million in 2010 is rising and is expected to touch 210 million in 2030. And by 2050, it is estimated to account for a quarter of the population. The UN reckons that between 2010 and 2030, China would be losing 67 million workers. Official statistics in China show that the proportion of the working age group peaked in 2010 (at 74.5 percent) and has been on the decline since 2011. Last year, 66 percent—916 million—were in the age group of 16-59.
There is no way that the two-child policy can alter any of these facts in the short-term. Current evidence suggests that the prevalent demographic trend is likely to continue because of a lower fertility rate and also because only a small percentage of those able and “eligible” are willing to go in for more than one child.
In 2013, when the birth control policy was relaxed, an estimated 11 million couples were eligible to add one more to the family. But less than 10 percent (1.1 million)—not 2 million as expected officially—had applied to have a second child.
On present reckoning, 90 million couples are eligible to have a second child. If the experience of 2013 is anything to go by, it is expected that not even 10 percent of the eligible may exercise this option. The bulk of those who go in for a second child may be rural families as they tend to have bigger families.
Besides the fertility rate falling to 1.5 percent on average, another distressing fact is the sex ratio, where males outnumber females. Such an adverse ratio, as the Indian experience has shown, can have undesirable social consequences. These do not encourage expectations of a “balanced population gro-wth” required for an economic transformation. Besides, the ratio of children in the population is also falling. If one-child families are the norm, no-child families are increasingly becoming the fashion.
Rapid urbanization has reinforced the one-child norm. Urban living is expensive, stressful and too restrictive to support large families. There are many deterrents to child-bearing. Rising costs of housing, nursing and education, lack of adequate social, familial and state support for child-bearing alongside late marriages and more women joining the work force are only a few of the reasons for most couples opting for one or no child. More aggressive approaches would be req-uired to reverse the trend and fuel population growth.
The one-child policy also created the “Little Emperor Syndrome” of single children being pampered to the hilt by parents and grandparents. But this one child was king only until his parents retired, as then he and his wife (again a single child) would find themselves supporting both sets of parents with limited space and resources. Those born in the 1980s, and now in their mid-thirties, are unlikely to risk another child in a system where social security, including pensions, is far from adequate. Many can neither afford nor want a second child because of the expenditure associated with it.
It will not be easy to reverse the falling birth rate as many difficulties have to be overcome first. Making baby boomers of those born in the 1980s and 1990s cannot succeed unless the ageing population is provided for and taken care of. According to one report of the 13th Five-Year Plan, nearly 200 million have yet to be covered by the insurance plan for the elderly.
China has a record of achieving targets and well before the stipulated date. However, when it comes to an increase of 30 million in the working-age population by 2050, it may well fall short of the target. China needs a baby boom. Yet it would be premature to expect it unless the CPC’s new population policy extends to correcting distortions in the population structure and forms part of a larger reform strategy focused on sustainable livelihood for all, including the aged.
—The author is an independent political and foreign affairs commentator