Human rights activists hope Beijing will grant full freedom to couples to have as many children as they want
China’s announcement that it will end its decades-long policy of restricting couples to having one child was greeted with a mix of skepticism and hope that it will be followed by greater freedom.
“I don’t see them abolishing the fundamentals of the [one-child-per-couple] policy; they are simply relaxing certain aspects of it. The structure of the policy remains,” said Chen Guangcheng, a human rights lawyer who has fought the regimen of forced abortions in his native China.
“But we shouldn’t understand this as the Chinese Communist Party getting rid of the entire system of population control,” Chen said in an interview. “They are not giving up their control of people’s reproductive choices.”
Robert P. George, chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, also said the move does not go far enough.
“The idea that any state can place a limit on the number of children a family can have is outrageous,” George said in an interview. “So we’re not going to stop—we at the Commission on International Religious Freedom or me in my personal capacity—are not going to stop our advocacy against this policy until it’s completely removed, and couples are free to have as many children as they please.”
Party leaders meeting in Beijing announced Thursday that all married couples would be allowed to have two children now. Introduced in 1978, the policy originally applied to couples living in China’s cities but was eventually extended to the countryside. Members of ethnic minorities were exempt.
The policy, combined with a traditional Chinese penchant to have sons, led to many sex-selective abortions over the years. The one-child restriction also was harshly enforced in many areas, leading to forced abortions and sterilizations of women who had a second or third unauthorized child, according to activists.
“Even if the new policy allows couples to have two children—a claim that remains to be seen—the coercive population control policy is essentially unchanged,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a leading expert on US-China relations in the House of Representatives. “Children will continue to be killed if unauthorized by the government and huge fines imposed—the so-called social compensation fee—on families who evade detection and have so-called illegal children.”
Chen began documenting abuses in the enforcement of the one-child policy in 2005 and organized class-action litigation against the government. In 2006 he began a four-year prison sentence, after which he remained under house arrest. He was released in 2012 and came to the US, where he now serves as a visiting scholar at the Catholic University of America and visiting researcher at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.
Beijing’s change in policy might alleviate the pressure for forced abortions “in certain situations,” he said Thursday. “But they’re really just pushing back the limits a little bit. So while in the past if you had one child already, they’d go after the second child; now if you have two children they’ll go after a third child.”
“In previoius years the Communist Party didn’t even admit the nature of the one-child policy,” he said, speaking of the progress that has been made by activists. “Now they’re more openly talking about some of these issues…. Because the outside world is aware of the policy and the brutality of this policy, it has expended considerable effort and concern in talking about it. This has ended up influencing the party to the point that they are relaxing the policy, as announced today.”
But, he cautioned, the one-child policy is “ensconced throughout the entire system, the entire hierarchy, from the central government down to the local governments. And people in all levels of government receive kickbacks and benefits from their participation in it.”
“Our goal is to completely eliminate China’s population control and family planning policy,” he said.
Another activist who has been calling attention to the one-child policy and its enforcement is Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers.
“Instituting a two-child policy,” she said in a statement to Aleteia, “will not end forced abortion in China. Couples will still have to have a birth permit for the first and the second child, or they may be subject to forced abortion. The core of the one-child policy is not the number of children the government allows. It’s the fact that the government is setting a limit on children and enforcing this limit coercively. That will not change under a two-child policy.”
Ironically, the one-child policy is apparently being abandoned because of economic concerns: it was instituted when Deng Xiaoping and other leaders concluded that China’s growing population threatened to stifle economic growth, the New York Timespointed out.
“The regime is backing away from draconian birth limits,” says Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, “not because senior Party officials have suddenly developed a conscience. Rather, it will be because they have finally realized that a shrinking workforce and a rapidly aging population are crippling future economic growth.”
“For at least the past two years, China’s workforce has been shrinking,” Mosher said in a statement to Aleteia. “Last year the potential workforce fell by 3.71 million, a significant number even by China’s standards. At the same time, the over-60 population is exploding. According to UN projections, it is expected to more than double by 2050. China is growing old before it grows rich, and the strains on China’s nascent pension programs will be enormous.”
The economic, pragmatic reason for reversing the one-child policy reflects the idea that “individuals exist for the sake of collectivities, or individuals exist for the sake of maintaining institutions,” Robert George said. “But of course that’s exactly backwards. Institutions exist to serve persons, the interest of persons. Persons should not be treated as a means to social ends. Social institutions are rather means to the flourishing of persons.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.