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Why is China on the verge of abandoning its two-child family limit?


Alexander Mueller | CC BY 2.0

John Burger - published on 05/31/18

Unsurprisingly, limiting population growth turns out to be bad economics.

Raising China’s long-standing one-child-per-family restriction to two children was not enough to ease the country’s labor shortage, so the People’s Republic of China is finally abandoning the restrictions altogether. But China can be just as strict in getting its people to have children as it has been in keeping them from having them.

That’s the view of longtime China observer Steven Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute. Mosher, author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order, said that he is confident the two-child limit will be abandoned, probably during the next meeting of the National People’s Congress, which meets in the spring each year.

Bloomberg News quoted sources involved in government deliberations over the nearly four-decades-old population control policy, saying that China’s leadership wants to slow the pace of the country’s aging population and protect itself against charges that it has violated human rights.

Mosher believes that in spite of the rumors, it’s a done deal.

“No one would suggest that an important policy was about to change unless it had already been decided, and now they’re just working through the details,” Mosher said in an interview. “They go through the pretense of having a democratic process, but really the decision has been made by [Communist] Party officials and it will be approved by the parliament when it meets again.”

He said the Communist Party of China needs to leak the news first, in order to soften public opinion.

“This is a policy that has resulted in tremendous suffering in China,” Mosher said. “It has resulted in the loss of 400 million lives of unborn children; forced abortion and forced sterilization of hundreds of millions of women. This is not something they would simply announce an end to. They want to have a scientific, economic rationalization in place. They want to be able to say to the Chinese people, ‘We’re lifting it because there’s a labor shortage, or we’re lifting it because of the aging of the population: we need more workers, we need people to be able to take care of their elderly relatives.’ To do it otherwise would jeopardize their legitimacy. They never admit that they’re wrong about anything.”

Until the 1960s, Beijing encouraged families to have as many children as possible because of Mao Zedong’s belief that population growth empowered the country. The population grew from around 540 million in 1949 to 940 million in 1976. Beginning in 1970, citizens were encouraged to marry at later ages and have only two children.

Aware of global concerns about overpopulation, and to limit the demands for water and other resources, Beijing introduced the one-child-only policy in 1979. In 2007, 36 percent of China’s population was subject to a strict one-child restriction, with an additional 53 percent being allowed to have a second child if the first child was a girl. Provincial governments imposed fines for violations, and the local and national governments created commissions to raise awareness and carry out registration and inspection work. As part of the policy, women were required to have an intrauterine device (IUD) surgically installed after having a first child, and to be sterilized by tubal ligation after having a second child. The IUDs installed in this way were modified such that they could not be removed manually, but only through surgery.

Also, because of the traditional preference for male children, if a family’s only child turned out to be a girl and the parents knew the child’s sex ahead of time, they might opt for an abortion.

The proportion of boys to girls rose significantly, leaving many young men with too few prospects for marriage.

In 2013, Beijing announced it would allow couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. In 2015, all couples were allowed to have a second child.

Meanwhile, in 2016, the government reported that the country’s workforce was 3.76 million laborers short, marking the first time the People’s Republic of China had a labor shortage in its history.

“Nike just closed factories in China and moved production to other countries,” Mosher said, explaining the effect of the labor shortage. “So as labor becomes in short supply, and labor prices rise in consequence, a lot of these labor-intensive industries are going to move to other places, like India and Vietnam and Burma.”

Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, which has spoken out against forced abortion in China, a practice that has resulted in the death of a disproportionate number of female unborn children, said that the abolition of coercive birth limits “will not end gendercide in China.”

“Many couples in China choose to have small families,” Littlejohn said in a statement. “Many do not want a second child, because of limited resources of time and money.  Because strong son preference remains, baby girls will continue to be selectively aborted and abandoned; people want their only child, or one of their two children, to be a boy. Second daughters, therefore, remain especially vulnerable, even with the abolition of coercive birth limits.”

In spite of gradual easing of the one-child policy, the birth rate has remained low, Mosher said, something he attributes to the materialistic nature of Chinese society.

“Young people, as is true I guess of young people all over the world, are not getting married,” he said. “They’d prefer to spend their money on cars and computers rather than on marriage and children. … And young people, because of rapid modernization, because of urbanization,  living in crowded urban environments, because of the materialistic nature of Chinese society today, where everybody is judged not by the number of children they have but by the amount of material goods they possess, … it’s going to be very hard to raise the birth rate.”

Mosher suggested that lifting the restrictions is not necessarily an end to the long arm of the Chinese Communist Party, however.

“I do think that if allowing voluntarism to rule in childbearing, if that doesn’t produce enough babies, China will resort to sterner measures,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the road they didn’t mandate couples having two children. … China will produce the number of babies the Party thinks it needs one way or another. They won’t be subject to the kinds of moral compunctions that democracies are subject to. They don’t have those. The Chinese Communist Party, which is a very utilitarian party, never takes those considerations into account.”

The other problem, of course, is the growing number of elderly in China, with a shrinking young demographic to support them.

“These people had one child, and their only child married another only child, and they have one grandchild,” Mosher said. “There’s simply too many elderly for the people who are caring for them. … There is no social security for most of the people. There is for retired Party officials; there is for retired government officials, and for people who have worked in some of the major companies, but not for those who worked in the countryside. There is no social welfare net. These elderly people without children, whose children were taken from them by forced abortion, are going to be starving to death in years to come.”

China differs from other countries that have a low birthrate problem, he explained, because it “grew old before it grew rich.” Nations like Japan became wealthy before their own birth rates plummeted—and have enough resources to take care of their aging populations.

In the meantime, Mosher doesn’t expect a let-up in the draconian methods of enforcing birth restrictions.

“The women in our safe houses in China, where we give them shelter because they’re pregnant with illegal children, have not suddenly decided they can go back to the towns and villages they came from,” he said. “I think they’ll stay in hiding and give birth to their children, because until the policy is formally changed, a million population control workers in China will still be trying to make a living off the fines they had imposed on couples who had violated the policy. … All officials in China supplement their income by monetizing whatever power they control.”

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