Will China end its one-child policy? Does China even have a one-child policy?

Family planning restrictions have resulted in a nation of ‘little emperors’. Photo by Jeffrey Aaranson (http://animprobablelife.com/gallery/china/)

There has been a good deal of chatter around the internet in recent weeks about how China’s Health and Family Planning Commission may be considering further relaxing the law to allow parents to have a second child if either parent is a single child.  A recent report in the International Business Times, for example, carried the headline “China to End One-Child Policy Due to Aging Crisis.”  The article notes that authorities are considering allowing a second child for all families by 2015.

While China’s aging population is a significant problem, as noted here by The Economist, there’s more than demography at stake in continuing the policy, and it seems unlikely that the demographic crisis alone will be enough to bring about a complete shift in policy.   For example, a recent Want Daily article reminds us that the policy is a revenue generator for local governments who in 2012 collected well over 10 billion yuan in non-compliance fines.

Wu Youshui, a lawyer from eastern China’s Zhejiang province who applied for public information from 31 provincial family planning committees and finance bureaus, said that social compensation fees from 10 provinces totaled 10 billion yuan (US$1.6 billion) last year. Among the highest include eastern Fujian province with 2.1 billion yuan (US$458 million), central Henan province with 1.6 billion (US$261 million), southwestern Sichuan province with 2.5 billion (US$400 million), and the southwestern metropolis of Chongqing with 1.7 billion (US$270 million).

The Want Daily article continues:

Another obstacle to changing the policy is the potential loss of jobs, as China’s national family planning network employs more than 500,000 people, including more than 100,000 public servants.

Wang Feng, who teaches sociology and demography at the University of California, Irvine, reminds us that there are many areas in China where it is already permissible for parents to have a second child if either parent is a single child.  He also points out that the so-called ‘one-child policy’ is actually a multipolicy.  There are three categories of fertility policy in China, according to his analysis:

  • Six provinces/regions directly under central control adhere strictly to one-child policy, unless shaoshu minzu or pinkun diqu.  These are Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Sichuan, Jiangsu (35% of China’s population).  But even within these regions, areas with large minority or impoverished populations have more relaxed controls.
  • Then there are ‘1.5 children policy’ regions where couples whose first child is a girl are allowed a second birth (54% of China’s population)
  • Finally, regions allowing a second or sometimes a third child (these are mostly minority areas – 11% of China’s population).

Wang argues that these three categories add up to an effective national fertility policy of 1.47 children per couple, and that the effective coverage of the one-child policy is only about 63% of China’s population (since only about half of the couples in the ‘1.5’ regions end up being allowed a second birth).

Map from Wang Feng, "Can China Afford to Continue its One-Child Policy?"

Map from Wang Feng, “Can China Afford to Continue its One-Child Policy?”

Family planning policies in China have also seen a recent shift focus away from coercive limitation of births and toward reproductive health services.  Indeed, forcing a woman to have an abortion in China is now illegal in China (this does not mean, of course, that it does not still happen in many places).  But given that ‘family planning’ remains driven by the ‘non-compliance economy,’ that it employs a vast labor force of over half a million people, and that it is already a bundle of regionally varied policies that don’t even apply to over 1/3 of China’s population, it seems unlikely that the ‘one-child’ policy will be abolished anytime soon.  It is much more likely that adjustments will continue to be made, as they have been all along, so that the policy increasingly matches the demographic realities throughout China.

UPDATE: 9/8/13 – Zhang Yueran has written a helpful article, on Tea Leaf Nation, on ‘following the money’ in China’s vast family planning network.  Zhang references Wu Youshui’s research and puts it in the context of the ‘Rural Tax and Fee Reform of 2002-2004,’ which deprived local governments “of almost all independent sources of fiscal income.”  Zhang continues:

[Local government] spending is generally financed by transfer payments from upper-level authorities, who can make demands as to how the money is spent. With little say over how to utilize the transfer payments, many rural local governments lack sufficient fiscal revenues for day-to-day operations. With this “hand-to-mouth finance” crisis looming, the social support fee, one of very few sources of income over which local government bodies exercise autonomous control, has becomes a lifeline in many regions.

This ‘social support fee’ is the fee paid by Chinese households for exceeding their allowed number of births.  It used to simply be called the ‘extra birth fine,’ but was in 1994 officially designated the ‘unplanned birth fee,’ and then changed to ‘social support fee’ in 2000.  Officially, the fee is levied “in order to compensate for the government’s public goods spending, adjust the consumption of natural resources, and protect the environment.”  In addition to covering the predictable expenses of local family planning services, including in some cases the incomes of the fee collectors themselves, Zhang argues that the fee is now used to cover a broad range of government expenses.  So it is unlikely that local governments would have any incentive to do away with birth restrictions, even if China’s demographic conditions now make such restrictions counter-productive to China’s long term stability.  Zhang concludes that

Softening the one-child policy means forcing the government itself to forgo its vested interests and finding a sustainable solution to the crisis of “hand-to-mouth finance.” Reforms must always be accompanied by resolutions to conflicts of interest and material compromises, and the impasse on China’s family planning policy is apparently not an exception.

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3 Responses to Will China end its one-child policy? Does China even have a one-child policy?

  1. Pingback: More on ending China’s one-child policy | geography3822

  2. Pingback: One third of China’s population will be over 65 by 2050 | geography3822

  3. 收养的人 says:

    I wrote a paper on the One Child Policy right as China was transitioning it to a national level two-child policy. It’s a fascinating topic that’s had detrimental consequences for so many millions of people.

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