The Two-Child Policy: Too Little Too Late?

In October, China announced the abolition of its highly controversial one-child policy. The Walt Disney Company was among the first to express commendation at the news, aware of the potential benefits and revenues their Hong Kong and Shang Hai strongholds will reap. Shares for baby and children products such as toys, clothing and milk powder also rose twofold overnight while social media erupted with an optimistic buzz. Thirty-five years later and the Chinese Communist Party has finally given up one of their most potent tool of social, economic and political control. Unfortunately, many argue that the ‘demographic timebomb’ [1] the policy created has already exploded, and perhaps it is all too little too late.

Image courtesy of CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0, © 2009, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0, © 2009, some rights reserved.

When Chinese policy makers warned Chairman Mao of an imminent population crisis in the 1950s, he asserted that manpower was necessary for the country’s development and dismissed the issue. The massive famine of 1962, prompted by the ‘Great Leap Forward’, ultimately pressured the authorities into initiating a campaign to limit population growth. In 1979, the drastic one-child policy was introduced, mainly affecting China’s ethnic Han majority and those living in urban centres; the law has largely exempted ethnic minorities and families living in rural areas, who required all the manpower they need for farming duties. China’s population now stands stabilized at around 1.3 billion, almost 20 per cent of the world’s population. However, the policy has long taken its toll, with problems materializing in all four corners of society.

China’s aging population and rising dependency ratio leaves a generation of single children to care for their parents and grandparents, proving to be incredibly strenuous for some. The aging, shrinking workforce meant that the market, particularly the country’s prominent manufacturing sector, is losing its labour advantage, potentially stunting future economic growth. Additionally, the ratio of taxpayers to pensioners in 2030 is expected to fall to just over 2:1 from the current 5:1, overloading the pension system and asserting further strain on the government and the economy. This trend is apparent in neighbouring Japan, which has the oldest population worldwide and is currently entering its third decade of economic malaise. The UN estimated that by 2050, China will have approximately 440 million people over the age of 60, and much of China’s economic future will depend on how it integrates its aging population into an economic growth model.[2]

The human cost of the punitive one-child policy is also pronounced. Couples who do not wish to risk getting fined thousands of dollars by the National Health and Family Planning Commission for policy violation have resorted to forced abortions, sterilisations and infanticide. The generation of parents subjected to the policy are also at risk of ‘shidu’, a term for ‘losing your only child’. Each year, the number of ‘shidu’ families in China grows by about 76,000. The traditional ‘chuan zong jie dai’ mentality, which stresses the importance of the patrilineal family name, is almost ubiquitous in all Chinese families. This has resulted in many sex-selective abortions in favour of sons and a disproportionate male to female ratio that manifested into a distressing gender imbalance. Time and time again, critics of the one-child policy have invoked the argument of human rights and how one’s decision to plan families and raise children are basic freedoms that should not be diminished, manipulated or sacrificed. Hence, many view the two-child policy as the most sensible solution, and one that is long overdue.

However, this solution might be inconsequential after all as despite the aforementioned social and demographic pressures, a large number of modern Chinese families remain contented with having one child[3]. More children and bigger families are seen as obstacles to a relatively affluent middle class life due to high expenses that include rising hospital, housing and school fees as well as the stress of juggling work and family life. Interestingly, falling birth rates in Hong Kong and Singapore reflect similar lifestyle choices among working, married couples in prosperous societies. In Singapore, despite policy incentives that include tax rebates for having a third child as well as childcare subsidies, having more children still remains a low priority. For this reason, many argue that a sudden baby boom which could significantly improve China’s demographics is unlikely.

Nevertheless, understanding the implementation (and now termination) of China’s one-child policy should not comprise of a humble discussion on whether it is too late for change. After all, population control measures is a science centred around pragmatism, in which contextualization against a country’s infrastructural, economic, political and social conditions at a given point in time is key to assessing their necessity and purposes. The one-child policy existed in the 1980s to tackle the issue of insufficient resources in China; overcrowding and overpopulation could have denied individuals their basic human rights to shelter, food and other public goods. In both 2011 and 2013, after recognizing inherent structural and demographic issues that were beginning to hinder China’s progress, the authorities relaxed the one-child policy in 2011 and slightly more in 2013. The gradual and constant adjustments on China’s family planning system over the years indeed requires time to take effect. Although no greater details on when or how the new two-child policy would be officially implemented, the development undeniably reflects a step forward in the right direction for China’s future.




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