A Powerhouse Province Wants to Relax China’s One-Child Policy—But Don’t Bet on a Baby Boom

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A woman carries a sleeping child to a waiting area at Guangzhou station on January 30, 2011. (Photo: Ed Jones - AFP - Getty Images)

China’s richest and most populous province, Guangdong, has reportedly asked Beijing for permission to relax the one-child policy.  Yesterday, Zhang Feng, the head of its population commission, revealed that the province is pitching a pilot project that would allow some families to have two children, reports the BBC. Under the proposed scheme, the one-child restriction would be waved if either of the parents was an only child. “The increase in population is still a big problem affecting our social and economic development,”  Zhang told state media. “But in the long-term, aging will also be a problem.”

Zhang isn’t the only one fretting over demographics. There is mounting concern that the one-child policy, which the government credits with preventing 400 million births, has had potentially destabilizing side effects, including a skewed gender balance and a rapidly aging population. A lingering preference for sons and ready access to sex-selective abortions have pushed China’s sex ratio to 121 boys for every 100 girls.  Meanwhile, the share of people over the age of 60 will increase from 12.5% in 2010 to 20% in 2020, notes the Economist. By 2030 their number will double, leaving relatively fewer workers to support a veritable army of retirees. Given these fears, it might be tempting to see Zhang’s comment as a reversal. It isn’t. Here’s why:

First, it’s a proposal, not a plan — and the proposal is hardly new. For years now, the party has been tweaking the one-child policy, adding lists of exemptions without abandoning its coercive core. In most provinces, for instance, families are legally entitled to a second child if both partners had no siblings. Ethnic minorities and rural residents whose first child is a girl are also cleared for more kids. In 2009, when Shanghai caused a stir by saying it would let a small subset of couples have two children, population officials were quick to note the long tradition of exceptions. They also said the city’s family-planning office would never encourage a measure that ran counter to national policy. That policy, for now, is population control.

Second, there is little evidence, yet, that adding exemptions will dramatically alter birth rates. Dr. PengPeng, a researcher at the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences told the South China Morning Post that, regardless of the law, many families limit themselves to one child because of “surging living costs such as housing and food prices.” Without government subsidies, Peng said, a second child would be too expensive for many Chinese.  The urbanites and officials who can afford a second child are already having them, often in the U.S. or Hong Kong.

The bottom line: Don’t bet on a southern Chinese baby boom — at least not anytime soon.

MORE: Read about the history of the one-child policy.

Emily Rauhala is a writer-reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @emilyrauhala. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.