Yet Again, China Looks at Relaxing Its Family Planning Policies

Since 1979, China has officially limited the number of children couples are allowed to bear in an attempt to avoid food shortages as the economy rapidly developed. Carving a legacy of demographic imbalance, horrific cases of abortion, sterilizations, and infanticide, and a population aging at a worrisome rate, family planning—as the One-Child policy was classified—has been long overdue for drastic overhaul. With the recent announcement from Beijing that the code of the National People’s Congress will no longer retain the relevant content of family planning, policy overhaul is here. The question is: Will Chinese parents choose to take advantage of it?

Over the lifetime of the policy the restrictions have already been somewhat relaxed. In 2016, the child limit was increased from one to two children per family. The government hoped that by easing financial burdens placed on families with two children by the One Child policy, more middle to upper-middle income families would be encouraged to have a second child—who would hopefully grow up to replenish the rapidly depleting population of white collar workers. But convincing these couples to take advantage of the newly opened policy proved to be more difficult than expected. These “high quality citizens”, who are the primary target of the policy changes, have grown up in a society where their lives already feel fully saturated with a single child and the burdens of their own career aspirations. To have a second child, and especially more, would simply put too much pressure upon lives they already find fulfilling. This moderate change to the policy resulted in a temporary reactionary bump in the birth rate, but this quickly and dramatically fell by the following year. So, while this announcement from Beijing may symbolize a win for human reproductive rights in China, it is unclear whether the move will have any tangible effect on the demographic issues the government is seeking to fix.

Trying to apply an open child policy onto the modern Chinese population also suffers from consequences of the gender imbalance created by the initial implementation of family planning. Today, there is a significant problem of the so called “lonely bachelors” who cannot find a partner in a society skewed so heavily male. This phenomenon has seen associated increases in trafficking and prostitution among Chinese and East Asian women—a notable portion of whom provide not only sexual services, but also are willing to pose as girlfriends or wives to quell the parental anxieties of these men.

On the other hand, the curbed birth policies have in some ways been empowering to women—providing a drive to succeed as the only child (or one of two) that has seen more women attending higher education institutions and balancing motherhood with full time work. With the relaxing of this policy brings worries that women who are happy in their current family and work situation will feel pressure to take on a more traditional role of the mother and be discriminated against in their workplaces for doing so. For as of right now, China does not provide strong support for pro-natal policies including paid maternity leave and affordable daycare services. As seen after the increase from the one to two child policy, leaving these issues to the mother, her family, and her workplace results in the mother being subject to promotion discrimination and a lack of job security. A generation of independent, well educated Chinese women are choosing to not make that sacrifice.

Revisions to the draft civil code which may include the redaction of these family planning policies will not be officially considered until the 2020 meeting of the parliament. In the meantime, debates on its ethical ramifications and projected efficacy rage on. Should it pass, one can only hope that it will be a positive change, allowing women the choice to have children or to pursue education and a career should they desire.