China Takes One Step Away From One-Child Policy

China’s notorious “one-child” population-control strategy has always been about money and resources. Did China have sufficient food to feed a billion mouths? Could a rapidly expanding population be led into a modern, market-oriented future? Morality, social impacts and the preservation of Chinese culture were seemingly secondary concerns, even in the face of international condemnation of coercive means to enforce the policy.

Now, more than three decades into the “one-child” policy (actually, a set of policies restricting the number of children Chinese may have), the economic calculus that made Chinese population control a logical and even necessary (in the eyes of many Chinese) course of action is faltering. As a result, last week the Chinese government took the first steps toward reforming how its population-control policies are devised, enforced and perceived.

China’s once cheap and plentiful pool of workers is becoming more scarce and expensive; the labor force declined by 3.45 million in 2012 and is expected to decrease by 10 million per year starting in 2025. The shrinking pool of workers will be forced to support an expanding population of senior citizens — 200 million in 2013 — that is expected to arrive at 360 million (more than the current U.S. population) in 2030. Meanwhile, over the next two decades, pension liabilities may reach more than $10 trillion.

Partly in response to this coming crunch, the government has begun floating proposals to raise China’s retirement age, much to the chagrin of future retirees. On March 16, Luo Jun, a Beijing-based chief executive officer of an online travel agency, used his Sina Weibo microblogging account to express irritation:

“There’s something that’s always puzzled me. We insist that family planning must continue as a national policy because we have too many people. However, proposals to postpone retirement suggest that there are too few people and a labor shortage. The logic is contradictory.”

The solution, at least for some Chinese microbloggers, is simple. The deputy editor of the Guangxi Daily News, a news portal in Guangxi province, tweeted via Sina Weibo on March 16: “The key to solving the problems of an aging society is to offer a second-child policy rather than postpone the retirement age.”

China’s population-control policies have actually undergone adjustments almost from their inception. Today, there are numerous exceptions that allow for second children. The 8 percent of China’s population that belongs to an official minority is exempt from restrictions. Nonetheless, over the last decade, calls for reform — especially in the form of a widespread second-child policy — have become more insistent.

The most serious discussions typically happen each spring during the annual “two sessions” of China’s top legislature and legislative advisory body, when Beijing is flooded with local officials with time on their hands (in between rubber-stamping new proposals and leaders). Invariably, these discussions and reform proposals amount to little more than topics for the media to cover.

Still, in many quarters, both public and official sentiment in favor of population control remains strong. Most arguments allude to some version of the statistic contained in this passage from a March 7 editorial in the Communist Party-owned, pro-government Global Times newspaper: “We have avoided more than 400 million people being born in China since the 1980s, relieving the stress on national finances.”

Popular support for this point of view, and extensions of it, are not hard to find on Chinese microblogs. For example, on March 12, a microblogger in Shanghai, reacting to news that the population-control policies might be relaxed, could not contain his contempt:

“Family Planning Commission officials: watering down population control policies to solve the problems of an aging population is like drinking poison to quench thirst. The problems posed by an aging population will pass, but unleash our fertility and we’ll be ruined.”

Arguably, a bigger impediment to the reform of China’s population policy is that China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, the agency in charge of enforcing population control, reportedly employs more than 500,000 people. This makes it a particularly potent political force in a country where public-sector employment remains an important means of patronage and economic development. Outright abolition of the agency and its policies would create more problems than it would solve — at least, from the perspective of Chinese leaders primarily concerned with stability.

A more cautious political approach is needed. A key first step came last week during the 2013 two sessions, when, as part of a restructuring of China’s State Council (roughly equivalent to a U.S. presidential cabinet), China’s new government merged the National Population and Family Planning Commission with the Health Ministry. The restructuring siphoned off responsibility for what Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, reported as “drawing up the population development strategies and population policies” from the National Population and Family Planning Commission to the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s chief economic planning agency. By doing this, China’s new government seems to be explicitly connecting its population policy making to the macroeconomic trends that have begun to worry economists at home and abroad.

The purpose of the merger is at once obvious and murky: Obvious in that it weakens the powerful National Population and Family Planning Commission but murky in that commission’s focus is much altered. It’s a point made by Wang Yukai, a professor with the Chinese Academy of Governance, in an interview with Xinhua: “’After the integration, China still needs to keep to its family planning policy, but what is more important is that China must strive to improve the quality of the population,’ he said, referring to boosting various aspects of people’s lives, including education, health and general well-being.” Though Xinhua did not spell out any specific policies, a public shift toward more qualitative, rather than quantitative, targets is monumental.

Still, it’s taken more than 30 years for the negative economic consequences of China’s population-control policy to become serious enough to inspire reform. Surely, a demographic rebalancing will take as long. But even if the economic benefits of reform are far off, the more important humane effects could be felt sooner, providing Chinese citizens with expanded, though still limited, reproductive freedoms that they haven’t known in decades.

Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing Junkyard Planet, a book on the global recycling industry.

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