China’s two-child rule: Praying for a baby boom

  • Sutirtho Patranobis, Hindustan Times, Beijing
  • Updated: Nov 08, 2015 13:35 IST
The little emperors: A father and son at the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Last week, China scrapped its nearly-four-decade-old one-child policy to allow couples to have a second baby. (Tim Graham/Getty Images)

Introduced in the late 1970s, China’s one-child policy involved large scale monitoring of the population and forced abortions and sterilisations, and led, in some cases, to fractured families where the ‘extra’ child had to be given away. However, the policy did not apply to all Chinese couples. Minority communities like the Uyghurs, rural couples whose first-born was a girl and, later, if both the wife and the husband were single children -- could have a second baby. Last week, China scrapped the old policy and introduced the two-child rule. “China will allow all couples to have two children, abandoning its decades-long one-child policy,” a brief communiqué issued by the Communist Party of China (CPC) said at the end of a meeting on the upcoming 13th five-year plan. “The change of policy is intended to balance population development and address the challenge of an aging population,” it said. It is easier said than done; the scars of the one-child policy have hardly been hidden and are far from healed. The couples not exempted by the earlier policy could only have the second child at considerable risk of government censure and physical and emotional trauma. Apart from forced abortions and sterilisations, punishing fines were levied to cover the welfare and education costs of the ‘illegal’ second child; those employed by the government lost their jobs.

Birth control authorities comprising hundreds of thousands of CPC members were directed to monitor women. “In local communities, work places, universities and the like, women of childbearing age were monitored by birth control authorities, down to menstrual cycles and contraceptive practices to prevent unauthorised pregnancies and to terminate pregnancies that should not have happened,” said Stein Ringen, professor of Sociology at Oxford University.

This abuse of women’s reproductive rights went on for decades. The ominous long-term impact gradually emerged but the information was quickly submerged in the din of development. Allegations of large-scale forced sterilisations were made as recently as 2010. “Amnesty International (an international rights group) has continued to receive reports of coerced abortions -- which are technically illegal -- and sterilisations in China. In 2010, 1,377 relatives of couples targeted for sterilisation in Puning City, southern China, were detained in an apparent attempt to pressurise the couples to ‘consent’ to sterilisation,” said William Nee of Amnesty. By the middle of the last decade, the negative impacts of the policy had become clear even to population researchers within the Communist fold. Opinions against the policy became sharper and so did the clamour for adjusting it. By late 2013, the CPC announced a new exemption: in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, if either the wife or the husband was a single child, they could have a second one. But, clearly, that didn’t still add up for China. Wang Guangzhou of the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences recently. wrote: “…figures indicate China will face a worsening labour shortage and increased aged population in future decades if the national family planning policy isn’t adjusted.”

Fuxian Yi, senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose “Big Country with an Empty Nest” - a book critical of the one-child policy - was banned in China, said the policy had zero positive impact on Chinese economy and society. “China should not have implemented the one-child policy in the 1970s. If the policy never came out, the fertility rate would still drop and now China’s population would be 1.5 billion, which means that the one-child policy only helped to get rid of 0.2 billion people instead of the official figure: more than 0.4 billion,” Fuxian said. It is a telling commentary on China’s change of heart about its population policy that a new edition of Fu’s banned book was printed by a publishing house under the Communist Party in 2013.

Experts say the one-child policy has left China with a shortage of labour force in the working age between 15 and 64. “The two-child policy will reduce the aging population by about 2 percentage points. But the aging issue cannot be entirely solved by the relaxed policy because China already has a huge elderly population of people above 60-65. The absolute numbers cannot be reduced. To address the issue, economic and social help (for the elderly) might be more important,” said Yang Juhua, demography expert at the Centre for Population and Development Studies at Renmin University in Beijing.

This brings us to an inevitable comparison of the population graph between India and China. India’s 2011 Census said that India has one of the largest proportions of population in the younger age groups in the world. 35.3 per cent of the population of the country was in the age group of 0-14 years and 41 per cent were under 18. “With economic and cultural development, the total fertility rate (the UN defines this as the average number of live births a woman would have by 50 if she were subject, throughout her life, to the age-specific fertility rates observed in a given year) in India has naturally dropped from 4.7 in 1980 to 2.3 in 2013. India’s demographic structure is far healthier and younger than that of China. India has a rich a labour force, little pressure from aging population and without doubt will have greater economic potential than China,” Fuxian said. The focus is will now be on how many couples opt for a second child given the rising costs of living and education here. It will also be on what the government can do to provide social insurance for the elderly. After the partial relaxation of the one-child rule in late 2013, 1.45 million couples registered for a second child by the end of May 2015. The Communist party will be hoping for a minor baby boom in the short term and a major miracle in the long-run to continue on its path to all-round economic and social development.

Family album: Nation of lonely children album

‘Mother gave birth to my sister secretly’

Zang Sha barely remembers meeting her younger sister during her childhood. In 1985, when the Communist Party of China (CPC) was sharply focused on implementing the one-child policy, Zang’s mother found herself pregnant with the second child - a child who would not be accepted under the rule of law. Zang was three at that time and the family was staying in a city called Baoding, close to Beijing. The parents had one option: give birth to the baby in a rural area (where the one-child policy was more relaxed) or abort the foetus. As it turned out, Zang’s parents didn’t have to pay any fine as they succeeded in hiding the child. Her mother stayed at her parents’ home till the baby was born. If Zang’s mother’s condition had been known to the authorities, she would have been forced to abort the child and pay a fine. “My parents had to give birth to my sister secretly, risking being punished for breaking the one-child policy. As a result, my sister was not on my family’s household book (the mandatory government registration which allows children to welfare schemes) and did not grow up with us,” Zang said.

Zang Sha with her family.

Her younger sister, though now reunited with the larger family, declined to speak. She spent her childhood and adolescence with her maternal grandmother and an uncle away from her own parents and elder sister. The lives of the two sisters were different as they were forced to grow up separately for fear of government repercussion and fines. Zang’s parents secretly sent money for the child’s upbringing and education and met her only occasionally. The situation changed with the years but the impact of the separation has remained; for one, the younger sister could never fully communicate with her parents in a way Zang could.

“Consequently, when she grew up, it was difficult for my family to communicate with her as we looked at things from different perspectives,” Zang said, a sense of loss and guilt evident. Zang, a housewife, and her husband, who works in a construction company, decided to have two children so that her first child would not suffer the pangs of loneliness. Since this was before the two-child policy began to be gradually implemented in early 2014, she ended up paid a fine of 40,000 Yuan (Rs 4 lakh approximately) to the local government for the second child. “I wanted to educate my child on what love is and how to love someone,” Zang said.

‘Single kids often selfish’

Liu Bo and his wife with their daughter.

Liu Bo, 37, has fond memories of his childhood in Hebei, a province neighbouring Beijing. He remembers playing, sharing and, of course, fighting with his elder brother while their parents were busy running a large restaurant and a wholesale fruit market. Both Liu and his brother were born before China introduced and then strictly implemented the one-child policy in the late 1970s. Hardly surprising then that Liu and his wife, Wu Xiao Na, also from a two-child family, want to give their seven-year-old daughter a warm if tightly-budgeted family life complete with a sibling. “I have often seen single children who are selfish and self-centred. They often have personality issues and lack communication skills. They can become arrogant and spoilt,” Liu told HT. “The personality of children who grew up in bigger families was different from those who grew up as a single child”. Liu and Wu have been wanting a second child since their daughter was born and with the government now completely relaxing the one-child rule, they have decided to go-ahead. Liu himself did not feel the hard pinch of the earlier policy. “It was a good policy at that time. It was needed for development. We needed energy. We needed industry. It was necessary to control the population,” Liu said. The situation has clearly changed now for small families like his. Liu works at a database company and is also doing his post-doctoral research on history; his wife teaches English at a Beijing technology institute. “The cost of living, especially children’s education is high. That is why not all my friends want a second child. But I can cover the cost,” Liu said.

‘One-child policy violated rights’

Wang Jie with her husband and two children.

Not many Chinese are likely to say this in as many words but Wang Jie likes to speak her mind. “The one-child policy was a violation of human rights,” said Wang, 35, still bitter about having to spend her childhood as a single child. She was born in the 1980s when policies all around discouraged parents from having a second child. “As far as I know, my parents were not a big fan of having a second child. On one hand, because of the one-child policy, having a second child would cause them to lose their jobs. On the other hand, when I was young, to adopt a child was not very difficult because, as I remembered, in some cases baby girls were abandoned at that time and the regulations on adoption were not very complex. But out of the pressure of money and limited energy, my parents did not adopt a second child,” Wang said. As a single child, she did not feel out-of-place as most of her friends were also single children. But the situation changed when she entered college at the age of 17. She was younger than many of her classmates who were from rural China and came from two-sibling families. “I got the feeling that my personality was too soft as I was accustomed to getting all the love, attention and resources from my parents rather than having to strive for them.” Luckily, for her, her older daughter did not have to stay a single child. Wang, who is against abortion, and her husband decided to have a second child in 2014 when the one-child rule was being gradually relaxed. “My older child is likely to become too self-centered growing up in a family consisting of two great-grandparents, four grandparents, two parents and an only child. Having a sibling provides an environment where my older child can live and grow without being spoilt,” she said.

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