China may bring in 'two-child policy' to tackle demographic timebomb

Faced with an ageing population and a shrinking pool of working-age people, Beijing is rethinking rule that saw most families being able to have just one child

Thirty-five years after enacting draconian birth control rules blamed for millions of forced abortions and the creation of a demographic “timebomb”, China could be on the verge of introducing a two-child policy. The new regulation, under which all Chinese couples would be allowed to have two children, could be implemented “as soon as the end of the year if everything goes well”, a government source was quoted as saying by the China Business News.

The highly controversial and often brutally enforced one-child policy was introduced by China’s Communist leaders in 1980 amid fears of a catastrophic population explosion. The government credits it with preventing 400 million births, but the human cost has been immense, with forced sterilisations and abortions, infanticide, and a dramatic gender imbalance that means millions of men will never find female partners.

In 2012 – in one of the most shocking recent cases of human rights abuses related to the policy – a 23-year-old woman from Shaanxi province in north-west China was abducted by family planning officials and forced to have an abortion seven months into the pregnancy.

Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Science, said the policy should have been abolished long ago. “The core issue is not about one child or two children. It’s about reproductive freedom. It’s about basic human rights. In the past, the government failed to grasp the essence of the issue,” he said.

Beijing quickly played down claims that the two-child policy would be in place by the end of the year. “No timetable has been set to allow all couples in the country to have a second child,” the national health and family planning commission insisted, according to the state-run China Daily.

Lu Jiehua, a professor of demographics at Peking University, told the Global Times the change was more likely to come next year. “It’s not simply about implementing a second-child policy. All relevant policies, regulations, formalities and facilities need to be in place to support [the policy] and it takes time.”

Liang said the apparent decision to bring in a two-child policy had been driven by growing public opposition to family planning laws. The internet – to which nearly 650 million Chinese people are now connected – had made public hostility more visible and more powerful. He added: “The government – under increasing public pressure – has to respond to people’s demands.”

Moves to loosen strict birth control rules are also a response to a demographic “timebomb” created by the one-child policy. Experts warn that China’s 1.3 billion-strong population is ageing rapidly, while the labour pool is shrinking. The country will have nearly 440 million over-60s by 2050, according to UN estimates, placing a massive strain on government resources.

Meanwhile, the working-age population – those aged between 15 and 59 – fell by 3.71 million last year, a trend that is expected to continue. If that trend is not reversed, “the future for China’s economy will look grim”, said Yi Fuxian, a demographer and outspoken critic of the one-child policy.

In recent years, there has been a gradual relaxation of China’s family planning laws, which already permitted ethnic minority families and rural couples whose firstborn was a girl to have more than one child. Since 2013, couples in many parts of the country have been allowed to have two children if one parent was an only child.

State media have celebrated the results of that policy shift, pointing to an additional 470,000 births in 2014 compared with the year before. But the mini-baby boom authorities had hoped for has failed to materialise. Experts say the fertility rate is not rising fast enough, with financial constraints putting many urban couples off having a second child.

“The change is imperative,” said Yi, whose book, A Big Country with an Empty Nest, attacks his country’s family planning policies. “The government’s selective two-child policy has proved a failure. Scrapping [the] one-child policy is the only sensible solution to China’s population crisis.”

Speaking earlier this month, Yang Wenzhuang, a senior family planning official, admitted China needed to act fast to “address a major demographic challenge facing the nation”.

Liang said Beijing’s apparent decision to scrap the one-child policy was a positive and long overdue step. But even a full shift to a nationwide two-child policy would do little to reverse the demographic trends already set in place. “At the moment, many people are not willing to have more children, even if they are encouraged to do so. So in reality the government introducing the two-child policy still won’t have much of an impact,” he said.

Last year, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences warned that China was close to falling into the so-called “low fertility trap”, a vicious cycle from which countries find it hard to escape.

For an estimated 2 million “orphaned” parents – who lost the only child the Communist party allowed them to have – news of the impending policy change brought little comfort. Huo Daozhong, a 58-year-old from Henan province whose only son killed himself in 2013, said: “It’s too late. The policy has nothing to do with us now.”

Each year, around 76,000 families join the ranks of China’s so-called “shidu” families when their only children die. “He was only 30 years old when he died. It felt like all our hopes had gone,” Huo said of his son. “Nothing matters now. We are alive but feel dead inside.”

Additional reporting by Luna Lin


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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