Rethinking Chinas one-child policyThe child in timeThirty years on, some want to scrap the repressive policy. The problem may beto get people to have more—not fewer—babiesAug 19th 2010 | BEIJINGIN MARCH, Yang Zhizhu was fired as a law lecturer in Beijing for having more than onechild. He knew the risk, but he badly wanted to father a boy. His story is not rare in acountry which for 30 years has told couples to settle for a single child and has useddraconian measures to limit births. But Mr Yang’s high-profile rebellion has won sympathyeven in the state-controlled press.Rumblings of discontent over the one-child policy have been growing louder, stirred bydebate over whether it is needed now that the first children born under it face the prospectof caring for an ever-increasing number of pensioners. A report last month by the ChineseAcademy of Social Sciences (CASS), a leading government think-tank, said officials wereseriously overestimating the fertility rate (the number of children an average woman canexpect to have in her lifetime). Rather than suppress the rate, suggested the report, thegovernment should try to lift it.When Mr Yang told of his plight on his blog, Beijing Times, a newspaper (loosely) controlledby the Communist Party, picked up the story. It quoted Mr Yang saying his second child was“a gift from God” and said he had ignored officials who wanted the fetus aborted. SouthernWeekend reported that the case had drawn more attention than any other since the launchof the one-child policy. Century Weekly, a magazine, said scholars and the public agreedthat giving birth was a “basic right” that should not be subject to official diktat.
Southern Weekend had already taken up the cause in March, describing the hitherto littlepublicised case of Yicheng county in the northern province of Shanxi. Yicheng, it said, hadbeen trying a two-child policy for 25 years. Despite its more relaxed regulations, the countyhas a lower-than-average population growth rate. It also has a smaller-than-averageimbalance between boys and girls. Elsewhere a traditional preference for boys, combinedwith the one-child policy, has resulted in widespread abortions of baby girls.In many other areas, something more like a two-child policy has been emerging. Ruralresidents are usually allowed to have a second if the first is a girl (typically after a gap offour years). Ethnic minorities can have more. Many places have started allowing parentswho themselves lack siblings to have two offspring. A senior family-planning official said in2007 that in effect the one-child policy applied to less than 40% of the population.The government, however, shows little inclination to scrap it. September 25th will be the30th anniversary of an “open letter” by the party that is often seen as marking the policy’slaunch. The letter spoke of having a one-child strategy for 30 or 40 years, encouragingsome to hope that it might end as early as this year. In February, however, an official said itwould remain unchanged at least until 2015.At the end of May, rumours spread that plans to hold a national census in November couldin effect herald an amnesty for the likes of Mr Yang. A police directive said that, inpreparation for it, officials must give household registration papers to children born inviolation of family-planning directives. Normally such papers are handed to “black children”,as offspring like Mr Yang’s are commonly known, only on payment of a huge fine (or fee, asofficials say). In cities this is often between five and ten times the local average annualincome.But officials have been trying to quash the speculation, saying that “fees” will still beimposed. Mr Yang, who refuses to pay, says he is lucky not to live in the countryside, whereofficials routinely seize property from those who cannot afford the levy. He thinks theywould be too embarrassed to do so in his case. He lives on a campus run by the CommunistYouth League.
Some Chinese scholars argue that the government is at risk of overdoing things. They saythe country’s fertility rate may actually be much lower than the official figure of around 1.8.This number has been used for more than a decade (and by international agencies, seechart). It suggests a comfortable levelling off after a steep decline in the rate in the 1970s,after mild childbirth restrictions were introduced.The recent CASS report said the rate that would be expected if women had exactly as manychildren as allowed would be 1.47. The government uses the higher figure believing thatmany “black children” were missed by censuses. But the report disagreed, saying suchserious underreporting was unlikely. It said data showed that the 150m-strong migrantpopulation has a fertility rate of only 1.14 (similar to that of registered urban residents).This belies the common image of migrants as big producers of unauthorised offspring.Zhang Juwei of CASS believes the overall fertility rate is no higher than 1.6.China cannot avoid its looming ageing problem, but these lower fertility estimates suggestits impact could be greater than officials have bargained for. The CASS study calls for a“prompt” change of policy to get the fertility rate up to around the “replacement level” of2.1. The problem could be in persuading Chinese to have more children. In cities andwealthier rural areas, surveys found that the number of babies women said they actuallywanted would produce a fertility rate well below 1.47. Mr Yang would like more but his wifehas had enough. His second baby turned out to be a girl. So he called her Ruonan, ahomonym for “like a boy”.Asiahttp://www.economist.com/node/16846390