China Loosens Its One-Child Policy

The shift may be too late to offset the damage already done to China's economy and society

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

A girl poses for a photograph at a commercial area of downtown Shanghai on Nov. 28, 2012

The Chinese government announced on Nov. 15 that it would loosen its notorious family-planning scheme, commonly known as the one-child policy. The new regulations will allow couples in which at least one parent is an only child to have two offspring. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, said the reform was designed to “steadily adjust and improve family-planning policies.”

The reform is part of what the Chinese government earlier this week referred to as “fine-tuning” of its restrictive family-planning policy, which was unveiled in 1979. (Generally speaking, the scheme limited urban families to one child but allowed rural couples to have more than one child in certain cases.) The curtailing of reproductive freedom, its supporters contend, meant that 400 million fewer Chinese were born, allowing for an unprecedented economic boom over the past 30-plus years.

But critics have assailed the policy for both the human-rights abuses it gave rise to — forced abortions and sterilizations, to name just two — as well as its social costs, which are now multiplying. China today faces a dramatic increase in its elderly population, along with too few young people to take care of all these retirees. The nation must also contend with an alarming gender imbalance because some parents have terminated pregnancies of female fetuses in order to ensure a favored boy as their sole child. By some estimates, China will have an extra 25 million young males by 2020.

Many Chinese demographers, even those raised in a socialist system that glorifies social engineering, have been calling for major family-planning reform, arguing that China’s youth population has declined so much in such a short time that the nation will soon face a shortage of the kind of skilled, young workers it needs to power its economy. They argue that as China grew richer, the once high birthrate would have naturally fallen anyway, as has happened in developed nations like Japan or Italy.

Piecemeal reforms to the family-planning scheme have been introduced over the years, such as a provision to allow couples composed of two only children to procreate more fully. (The Nov. 15 announcement is widening the parameters to couples in which only one parent is an only child, not both.) Pilot projects have already been introduced across the nation, allowing for more reproductive liberties in certain localities.

But some demographers say such tweaks are not enough to counter the host of social problems caused by China’s skewed demography. Others speak of the reluctance of the massive family-planning bureaucracy — which employs some 500,000 people and provides income in the form of fines for illegal babies to local governments — to hasten its own extinction. “We don’t need adjustments to the family-planning policy,” says Gu Baochang, a demographer at People’s University in Beijing. “What we need is a phaseout of the whole system.”