The Third Plenum leadership conclave that ended last week in Beijing brought — in addition to reams of turgid paeans to the Chinese Communist Party — hopes that President Xi Jinping and his team are committed to a national economic refurbishment. But among ordinary Chinese, the meeting’s most welcome outcome may be news that the notorious one-child policy is finally being loosened.
The new family-planning reform will allow couples in which one partner is an only child to have two kids themselves. (Already, farmers, ethnic minorities and couples composed of two only children are subject to more relaxed rules.) Each year, 1 million parents may take the government up on its offer to expand their families, according to demographers’ projections.
But as TIME notes in its international cover story this week, such “fine-tuning,” as state media characterized last week’s policy update, will not be enough to counteract the fact that “the world’s most populous nation, 1.35 billion strong, will soon have too few people — or, rather, too few of the right kind of people.”
Last week’s reform does show that China’s leaders, after years of delay, are beginning to face up to the unintended consequences of the one-child policy. Unveiled in 1979 to galvanize a poor, populous society, the family-planning scheme is credited with having helped spawn China’s economic transformation, despite the human-rights abuses committed in its name. But as any society grows richer and more educated, family sizes tend to taper off. As TIME’s story notes, more than three decades of government-mandated family planning have exacerbated this natural trend and left China with:
a distorted population: too few youths, too few women and too many elderly. Writing in the Population and Development Review, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Population Council in New York City, three top Chinese demographers predict that “the one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history,” alongside the turbulent 1966–76 Cultural Revolution and a devastating man-made famine from 1959–61. “While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact.”
In implementing the largest social-engineering experiment in human history, the People’s Republic has merely traded one population time bomb for another. China now faces a multitude of social woes usually seen in more-developed economies better equipped to handle these challenges. It is growing old before it grows rich — meaning an explosion of elderly Chinese even as the government has presided over a fraying of the nation’s socialist safety net.
Last year the working-age population shrank for the first time, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, a huge concern for a government that depends on plentiful labor to deliver economic growth, which is in turn needed to quell social instability. By limiting urban families to one child while allowing some rural ones to bear two, China has skewed its population against the type of citizen it needs in order to climb into the ranks of developed countries. Then there are the some 25 million extra males, a result of tradition-bound parents ensuring that their offspring quota is filled by a son. “I don’t think the one-child policy was worth it,” says Mu Guangzong, a population expert at Peking University. “The people who made the policy never imagined all the problems we’re facing right now. Their knowledge of demography was shallow. Now society has to pay heavily for their ignorance.”
No date has been announced for implementation of this month’s policy tweak. In fact, such deadlines will be set locally. The timetable for further family-planning reforms isn’t clear either, leading to worries that change will come too late to combat China’s social and economic woes.
Meanwhile, campaigns to catch high-profile evaders of the family-planning policy continue, even as some Chinese ignore the rules and choose to pay exorbitant government fines instead. (Other rich Chinese are giving birth overseas and registering the child for a foreign passport, which may be cheaper than paying the family-planning levies back home.)
On Nov. 19, Xinhua, the official Chinese news service, published an article about film director Zhang Yimou, who has been accused of fathering at least seven children with various women. Authorities in Wuxi, the coastal city that is the hometown of Zhang’s wife, have been trying to contact the famous director for months to get an accurate appraisal of his family size, according to Xinhua.
But even though Zhang appears to be in China shooting a movie, local authorities in Wuxi complained to Xinhua that they have not been able to reach him. Separately, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, estimated that Zhang could be liable for more than $26 million in fines for his multiple offspring. Even for a family-planning bureaucracy that has made at least $330 billion from so-called social-support fees since the one-child policy began, according to one Chinese demographer’s estimate, that would be an impressive individual haul.