China’s decision to end its 36-year-old one-child policy imposed on 1.3 billion people was surprising but not entirely unexpected. This massive act of social engineering by the Chinese Communist Party has produced nothing short of a demographic disaster.
By 2025, the U.N. projects that China will be the most elderly nation on Earth, with more Chinese 60 and over than 14 and under, drastically burdening social welfare infrastructures and slashing workforce productivity. That’s why the government has been quietly signaling for years that the policy would eventually end, even implementing reforms in 2014 that added 11 million households to the rolls authorized to have more than one child.
But fewer than a million families actually applied for permission for a second baby, convincing the government that it needed to end the policy for good. Which raises the question: Will the new two child policy really encourage Chinese parents to start having two children?
After all, four decades of social pressure and sometimes coercive enforcement have deeply engrained the one-child norm into Chinese identity — and it may well take as many decades to root it out. And given the economic realities associated with raising a child in modern China, a second child could be an expensive luxury, reserved largely for the wealthy.
Chinese culture has long valued children above all things. Families with large broods were seen as exceptionally fortunate — because more offspring are signs of wealth, or meant more hands to work for the family.
But during the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, the government began looking into family planning, proclaiming that having two or fewer children was a patriotic duty that ensured the nation would have enough resources for all.
In 1979, this pressure was stamped into policy, with the single-child limit subsequently enforced through heavy monetary penalties, public shaming and forced abortion, such as in the infamous 2012 case of Feng Jianmei.
Since then, one child has become a social standard, with the consequence that for every household, a single son or daughter is now doted upon by two parents and four grandparents, showered with material possessions, pushed to excel academically and entrusted with the entirety of a family’s hopes and expectations.
Americans spend about $13,600 per year on each child they have. That’s about 27% of the median U.S. household income. Chinese spend around $3,745 per year on their kids — or about 50% of China’s median household income. Almost three-quarters of that money goes toward education and enrichment; it’s seen as an investment in the future, because failing to spend enough on extra tutoring is seen as a critical handicap in the academic race that culminates with China’s national college entrance examination, the gaokao. (Because scoring poorly in the gaokao means being condemned to a second-rate university, or none at all — so in essence, failing the gaokao means failing at life.)
So raising a child in China is a pricy proposition. And most of China’s 140 million rising middle-class families feel they simply can’t afford the financial burden of raising more than one. Which is why China’s attempted doubling down on childbirth may ultimately have little near-term effect on Chinese demographics.
“There have always been tons of exceptions to the policy,” says Mei Fong, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter, whose forthcoming book “One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment” is currently being sped out to publication. “Rural residents and ethnic minorities, coal miners, fishermen, people with physical handicaps and couples who are both only children already could’ve had two kids. The segment of the population that has really been squeezed (by one-child policy) is the middle class.”
The affluent have always been able to pay the penalties for multiples. Fong points out that the three richest men in China all have more than one child. But for middle class families, simply removing penalties isn’t enough. “I think many will be resistant to have second children unless the measures are accompanied by financial relief — tax breaks, scholarship guarantees, things like that. And even those may not work. So far, there hasn’t been a country in the world that’s successfully turned on the baby tap after turning it off with policy — not Singapore, not Taiwan, not Korea. So the likelihood is that the effects of one-child policy will linger for generations.”
Which raises the question: Will second children simply be a luxury of the wealthy? And if so, how will that impact Chinese society?
My prediction: Within a few years, no Chinese millionaire’s Mercedes will be fully complete without two baby seats in back, and Bugaboo Donkey double strollers will become the new Prada bags.
Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action and editor of the graphic novel anthologies Secret Identities and Shattered. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.