China: Moving Away From The One-Child Policy

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The National Library of China in Beijing (Photo Credit: IQRemix, Flickr Commons)

The National Library of China in Beijing (Photo Credit: IQRemix, Flickr Commons)

According to the Chinese government, the one-child policy prevented about 400 million births throughout its three decades of implementation, thereby reducing population pressure and contributing to the nation’s dramatic economic takeoff since the 1980s. However, the Chinese population paid an immense price for this policy: drastic declines in fertility engendered by forced sterilization, infanticide, and sex-selective abortions have caused a gender imbalance and an accelerated aging process in the Chinese population. Recent reports from the U.N. estimate that by 2050, China will have about 440 million people over the age of 60 and a growing number of young men who cannot find female partners. Considering the future economic and social needs of the country, China finally abolished its one-child policy in October of last year, allowing couples to have two children.

Evidence indicates that the impact of the policy reversal may be limited. In 2013, the government relaxed the one-child policy by allowing minority ethnic families, couples who are single children themselves, and rural couples with female firstborns to have a second child. A survey conducted by researchers from Jilin Economics and Finance University in 2015 showed that among eligible couples, only about 43 percent wanted to have a second child. [1] This is not particularly surprising, given that the factors influencing couples’ decisions on whether or not to have a second child are multidimensional and complex.

By the end of 2015, the government revised its law on population and family planning, and the implementation of the two-child policy started nationwide on January 1, 2016.  Though couples still must pay a fine for a third child, considerable changes have been made to the law in order to promote the two-child policy. The revised law no longer encourages delayed marriage and childbirth, which are general practices known to decrease lifetime fertility.  In order to encourage couples to have a second child, paid maternal leave was increased from 98 days to 158 days, and fathers are now granted a 7-day paternal leave.  Moreover, the government no longer issues honorary certificates for single-child couples, as was the case in the past.

The impacts of these changes have yet to be seen.  For sure, fertility rates will increase, but may vary by geographic area and socioeconomic status. The potential discrepancies related to rural-urban fertility increases were well documented with the previous relaxation of the one-child policy:  according to the aforementioned study, only 21 percent of eligible couples from urban cities, like Beijing, wanted to have a second child, whereas 53 percent of couples from rural areas reported the desire to do so, if their first child were to be a girl. This comes as no surprise, given that additional children provide old age security and auxiliary labor supply, which stand to benefit China’s poor and rural populations.

However, should this demographic birth additional children, both income and rural-urban inequality may further increase, as poor and rural areas become financially burdened by the responsibilities associated with increased fertility. Additionally, the new policy will likely increase the medical, educational, and infrastructural demands associated with a younger population, which will likewise increase government expenditure. Therefore, the new policy presents tremendous challenges, given that income and social inequalities are currently feeding slowed economic growth and increasing instability in China.

To mitigate these and other negative implications, the government will need to supplement the revised law with supportive socioeconomic policies. Government spending should prioritize improvements related to health care access, basic education, and job creation for poor and rural populations. This will serve to support foreseen vulnerabilities in these populations, while also fostering conditions that will promote the health and productivity of incoming youth. Second, while the government now allows families to have more children, supportive policies must help families meet the increased financial responsibility of doing so; thus, social security and universal health insurance must be further developed in order to ease the financial burdens of childbearing for households. Finally, China urgently needs to develop a social elderly care system as an alternative to its traditional family old age care system, which is collapsing due to increased mobility, urban migration, and the emerging effects of historical fertility restrictions.

Whether the change in policy from one-child to two-children will achieve the intended goals of improving the labor supply, reducing gender imbalance, and balancing the progression of population aging is yet to be seen. Although negative consequences could arise as the revised law is implemented, foreseeable implications can be mitigated by properly supplementing the law with socioeconomic policies such as those listed above. With support systems in place, the two-child policy will provide more liberation for Chinese families, an important step as the Chinese government steps away from decades of forced population control.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Jilin Economics and Finance University News Paper, April 9, 2015.  The survey reported in the paper had 1870 sample from 4 provinces and two cities.

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Shiyan Chao is a recently retired Senior Health Economist at the World Bank, where she worked on health economics and economic development issues for over 30 years in more than 20 countries. Shiyan has a Ph.D. in Health Economics and Economic Demography from the Johns Hopkins University and a health management certification from Harvard University.

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