After easing limits, China presses for more babies
For decades, China harshly restricted the number of babies that women could have. Now it is encouraging them to have more. It is not going well.
Almost three years after easing its “one child” policy and allowing couples to have two children, the government has begun to acknowledge that its efforts to raise the country’s birthrate are faltering because parents are deciding against having more children.
Officials are now scrambling to devise ways to stimulate a baby boom, worried that a looming demographic crisis could imperil economic growth – and undercut the ruling Communist Party and its leader, Xi Jinping.
It is a startling reversal for the party, which only a short time ago imposed punishing fines on most couples who had more than one child and compelled hundreds of millions of Chinese women to have abortions or undergo sterilization operations. China is the world’s most populous nation, with more than 1.4 billion people.
The new campaign has raised fear that China may go from one invasive extreme to another in getting women to have more children. Some provinces are already tightening access to abortion or making it more difficult to get divorced.
“To put it bluntly, the birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself, but also a state affair,” the official news- paper People’s Daily said in an editorial this week, prompting widespread criticism and debate online.
In what appeared to be a trial balloon to test public sentiment, the provincial government in Shaanxi, in central China, last month called on Beijing to abolish all birth limits and let people have as many children as they want.
The proposal is politically fraught because removing the last remaining checks on family size would be another reminder that a policy that touched every Chinese family and reshaped society – most Chinese millennials, for example, have no siblings – may have been deeply flawed.
“Among regular people, among scholars, there’s enough consensus already about the policy,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a research organization in Beijing. “It’s just a matter of time before they can lift this policy.”
A plan to end the twochild limit was floated during the legislative session in Beijing last spring and now appears to be under consideration with other measures, the National Health Commission said in a statement.
Experts say the government has little choice but to encourage more births. China is aging quickly, with a smaller workforce left to support a growing elderly population that is living longer. Some provinces have already reported difficulties meeting pension payments.
It is unclear whether lifting the two-child limit now will make much of a difference. As in many countries, educated women in Chinese cities are postponing childbirth as they pursue careers. Young couples are also struggling with economic pressures, including rising housing and education costs.
The “one child” policy also resulted in more boys than girls being born. Some parents obtained abortions because the fetuses were female, reflecting traditional preferences for male children, though such selective abortions were illegal. Because of that and other factors, there are now simply fewer women to marry and bear children.
The number of women between the ages of 20 and 39 is expected to drop by more than 39 million over the next decade, to 163 million from 202 million, according to He Yafu, a demographer and the author of a book on the impact of China’s population controls.
“Without the introduction of measures to encourage fertility, the population of China will drop sharply in the future,” he said.
The “one child” policy was introduced in 1979 as a way to slow population growth and bolster the economic boom that was then just beginning. The party built a vast bureaucracy of “planned birth” workers to enforce the policy, sometimes with violence. Resistance in the countryside was especially fierce, in part because of a rural preference for male children who could help with farm work.
In 1984, the government allowed rural couples whose first child was a girl to have a second child. In 2013, recognizing the implications of an aging population, the government allowed parents who were only children to have two children. Two years later, the limit was raised to two children for everyone, effective Jan. 1, 2016.
One recent government study estimated that China’s labor force could lose 100 million people from 2020 to 2035, then another 100 million from 2035 to 2050.
Chinese officials are scrambling to devise ways to stimulate a baby boom, worried that a looming demographic crisis could imperil the country’s economic growth. Above, a newborn receives care at a clinic in Beijing.