Assessing China’s Two-Child Policy

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(Photo Credit: Tony Tseng, Flickr Commons)

(Photo Credit: Tony Tseng, Flickr Commons)

In October, the Chinese Communist Party announced the end of its one-child policy—which has spurred relentless criticism from human rights advocates since its enactment in 1979—and the launch of a new rule permitting married couples to have up to two children.  In China, many reacted with joy at the news of this policy shift. The impetus for this change, however, has much more to do with economic concerns about a rapidly aging population than it does with human rights. Even so, the policy change may have happened too late to produce the demographic increase government leaders hope to achieve.

The new two-child policy is best understood as the latest step in a gradual policy relaxation, rather than as a sudden rescission. The Chinese government’s family planning policy has never been absolute: even under the one-child rule, a couple could apply for permission to have a second child if both were themselves only-children, if either parent was an ethnic minority, or—among rural couples—if their first child was a daughter. In 2013, amid growing demographic concerns, the policy was further relaxed, as Beijing announced that couples would be allowed to have a second child if either of the prospective parents came from a single-child family.

Yet while the most recent policy change allowing all married couples to have two children is intended to increase the labor pool in eventual support of a growing elderly population, recent history suggests that the termination of the one-child policy is unlikely to produce a demographic boom. Indeed, following a partial relaxation of the policy in 2013, a surprisingly small number of couples decided to expand their families: just over one million out of the close to eleven million eligible couples applied to have a second child in 2014. For many, this was due to the prohibitive cost of raising children—concerns that Chinese citizens contemplating life under a new two-child rule continue to express.

Even if the new policy does result in a surge in the birth rate, experts suggest that it would not happen quickly enough to address the growing demographic and economic crisis facing Beijing. Although officials hope the two-child policy will help replenish the labor force, increase consumer spending, and boost the economy, the fruits of any population growth will not materialize in the labor force for twenty years, leaving a significant gap between the demand and supply of laborers for decades to come.

It would be foolish, however, to suggest that the rescission of the one-child policy will not have a substantial effect on China’s population. Doing so would ignore the suffering endured by countless Chinese citizens, particularly women, who were subject to brutal human rights abuses, including forced abortion and sterilization, at the hands of governmental authorities. Overlooking the impact of the policy change would also understate the potential to reverse a decades-long increase in China’s skewed sex ratio. The one-child restriction and the low value placed by Chinese society on having girls helped fuel one of the world’s largest gender gaps–only 100 girls were born for every 119 baby boys in 2014, and an estimated twenty-five million women were missing from the Chinese population.

To be sure, the two-child policy is still a far cry from any policy that protects the fundamental right of human beings to have children and a family, an established international norm dating back to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Under the new policy, Chinese citizens are still required to apply for permits in order to have children, and the specter of enforcement of a two-child rule raises many of the same human rights concerns that animated opponents of the one-child policy. And while a two-child policy may decrease the imbalance in the sex ratio, this policy change could lead to more baby girls without a concomitant shift in the cultural norms that privilege boys. As economist Amartya Sen noted decades ago while documenting the 100 million missing women worldwide, bias against female children is not unique to China. Witness, for example, the skewed sex ratios in India or the Caucasus region that intensified, even in the absence of restrictions on family size, due to the low status society placed on birthing girls.

While the effect of the reversal of China’s one-child policy is uncertain, so, too, is the result of Beijing’s decades-long experiment with a repressive family planning policy. Some demographers postulate that the rapid decline in the Chinese population actually pre-dates the 1979 one-child rule; other experts suggest that increasingly educated women in China, not the government’s brutal one-child enforcement regime, led to smaller families. What is certain, however, is that although China’s one-child policy finally has been rescinded, the suffering endured by those who were deprived of their human rights cannot be undone.

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Rachel Vogelstein is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. Her research focuses on the relationship between women's advancement and prosperity, stability, and security. She is also a professor of gender and U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown Law School.

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