Should China Loosen the One-Child Policy?

By Yang Guang
Published: 2009-04-10

News, issue no.412, March 30, 2009
Translated by Zhang Junting
Original articles:
[Chinese 1 2 3]

Since China's one-child policy began in the 1980's, it has been loosened for minority groups and in areas experimenting with alternative familiy planning regulations.

Yicheng county of Shanxi province was one such place. It has seen relatively slower population growth over the past two decades, some say thanks to the 24-year long pilot project allowing two children per family.

Often called the "two late and wait" policy, it required couples to marry later in life, have children later in life, and wait five years before having the second child.

In recent years, whether or not to expand the "two-child policy" has been hotly debated, with some pointing to places like Yicheng as examples of a new approach to population control.

Yicheng County's "Two Late and Wait" Pilot
56-year old Shi Yuping, a one-child policy supervisor in Yicheng county, was treated like an enemy by villagers when she first started doing her job. "I felt like a criminal every time I visited the village - everyone shut their doors and windows," said Shi.

"In the 1980s, one-child policy workers needed police escort when entering villages. There were severe conflicts between policy supervisors and locals over sterilization," said Zhang Yuhui, also a policy supervisor from Yicheng.

Villager Gao Xiuying recalled for the EO how policy supervisors offered food and money to women willing to be sterilized. Despite the incentives, many were unwilling to participate in the program.

"Things didn't get better until the 'two late and wait' pilot," said Zhang. "It's far easier for that policy to be carried out, it's just so hard for people to accept having only one child," said Zhang.

Though it encountered some resistance, the new policy, started in 1985, was an overall success.

The county's population growth rates have consistently been lower than the surrounding city, Shanxi provincial, and national levels. From 1982 to 2000, China's population increased 25.5%, Shanxi province's by 28.4%, and Linfen city's, which Yicheng was a part of, by 30.4%.

Meanwhile, Yicheng's population grew by only 20.7%.

"Strict policy is meaningless for people here. Even if there was no family planning policy at all, most peasants wouldn't have that many children and would choose voluntary sterilization. People's mentality has changed," said Shi Yuping.

One villager told the EO that though her family had only one daughter, who was married two years ago, they were economically comfortable. Now the family has contracted their land and opened a supermarket with her son-in-law transporting goods, she said.

In Yicheng County, most families have two children, and most hoped for one boy and one girl. "But there is nothing so bad about having one girl, the government gives us a good subsidy," said villager Gao Xiuying.

According to Yicheng family planning policy official Song Gongqian, subsidies for families with one or two daughters have been quintupled since 2008.

Interviews: Should China Loosen Its Family Planning Policy?

Liang Zhongtang, a prominent sociologist and early proponent of the two-child policy, was still a young teacher when he first proposed the Yicheng trial.

In Support of a Two-Child Policy

The Economic Observer: Does the satisfactory result of the pilot project have anything to do with relatively higher living standards of the county or heavy investment by the government and efficient management?

Liang Zhongtang: No - exactly the opposite. The reason why I chose Yicheng was because it's a typical Chinese agricultural county, which would enable me to more easily promote the policy elsewhere. In fact, Yicheng County's economy and living standards have always been lower that the provincial and national average.

Before 2000, experts from the National Population and Family Planning Commission often took Yicheng County as an example of insufficient government investment. As for management ability, you can probably imagine what kinds of "special" management styles such a poor county government has. If they can do such a good job for more than 20 years, so can other places.

EO: How can loosening the policy leads to lower birth rates, while strict policy will accelerate population growth?

Liang: If we view the issue in a modern historical context, we notice that almost all countries in the world see slower population growth during modernization, which shows that birth control was a new life style created by industrialization. Having more children is no longer a necessary investment for one's elder years, given both the economic and social independence of the elderly today.

When it comes to Yicheng County, though family planning policy was very different than in other parts of China, it saw almost the same population growth. This means policy differences were not that significant in terms of curbing population. Moreover, it's true that almost every family in Yicheng has two children, however, the population growth was even slower than national average, which proved that many rural Chinese still raise two or more children despite the strict policy controls.

If China's one-child policy was fully effective, the total population by the end of last century would be under 1.1 billion, however, that figure turned out to be 1.26 billion after the population census in 2000. Under the natural conditions with no family planning policy, the birth rate would drop faster than with strict restrictions.

EO: Many people fear that loosening family planning policy will cause a population boom. What do you think about this?

Liang: This largely depends on people's mentality. Rural Chinese know that happiness is more than just having children. As we discussed above, population growth is a natural process, and since strict policy doesn't seem to do much, loosening up the policy probably won't help substantially either. The key issue is how to stop wasting social resources on policies that are not working.

Cheng Enfu: "By No Means Two-Children Policy Is Viable"

Cheng Enfu, dean of the Marxist research institute at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, was loyal to the one-child approach, which he said was critical to reaching zero population growth sooner and easing population-growth-aggravated problems.

EO: One-child policy has been implemented for about 30 years. Do you think it's been effective?

Cheng: The policy has been truly effective, and thus far reduced the population by 350 million since its implementation. It should be strongly encouraged and further supported. Without the policy, China's per capita income, resource and living standards would have been far lower than current level, meanwhile unemployment, environmental degradation, and urbanization problems would have been worse.

However, our goals of curbing population, relieving social burden, and improving population quality have yet to be completely reached, and as such, instead of changing the one-child policy, it should be more strictly carried on.

EO: During the recently concluded top two political sessions in Beijing, you suggested imposing an even stricter one-child policy to deal with social tensions caused by population growth. What are you basing this on?

Cheng: China's population development has seen historic changes, but the pressure of population growth is still enormous. Where is the future path for China's population growth? How can we tackle the new challenges? These are crucial questions concerning our future. China's population policymakers are standing at a new fork in the road.

In the meantime, academics and regulators haven't reached any real consensus. In recent years, some scholars have been promoting "two-child" policy, and argued that such measures can curb the aging of society and optimize population structures, though it will delay zero population growth.

There have been three major viewpoints in terms of family planning in China, the first is about keeping one-child policy; the second insists on a two-child policy, and the third asks for a loosening up of the one-child policy. To date, the first and the third have been carried out in practice.

Under the one-child policy, the year we reach zero population growth will be 2024. Under a two-policy system, this will be pushed to 2045. This will only further enlarge China's immense population base and pose more challenges to environmental conversation, resource scarcity, urbanization and employment.

EO: What about those who fault the one-child policy for an aging society?

Cheng: There is nothing all that dreadful about an aging society - it's a good thing in many ways and should be accelerated. Our society is aging because the one child policy helped us cut more than 300 million people. If both China's rural and urban areas age, its an indication of higher living standards, better health care and longer life expectancies. It's a good thing.

One thing we need to remember is we are all beneficiaries of the "population bonus", the 300 million people that were not born thanks to the one-child policy. Without that policy, we wouldn't have reached today's living standards.