As you have probably heard by now, there has been some encouraging news from the Chinese Communist Party over the last few days. As Fairfax NZ reports

“China has relaxed its one-child policy and put an end to notorious labour camps in a sweeping reform plan aimed at stabilising the population.

The changes were agreed at the annual meeting of the Communist Party’s top 400 leaders held in Beijing, Chinese state media reported.

The reforms include the birth policy, starting with allowing families where just one parent is a single child to have a second child.”

And what has brought about this change in policy? Well it turns out that if you try and command the fertility of the largest nation on Earth, unexpected and unwelcome results can crop up.

“Chen Wei, a demographer at Beijing’s Renmin University, told the Guardian said the policy was being relaxed because China’s lingering low birth rate had meant a sharp drop in the labour force aged below 30, and an abnormally high ratio of newborn boys to girls…

Demographers have argued that the population policy has created a looming ageing crisis for China by limiting the size of the young labour pool that must support the large baby boom generation as it retires.

‘It’s great, finally the Chinese government is officially acknowledging the demographic challenges it is facing,’ said Cai Yong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.”

While this is definitely a good thing, we should temper our excitement somewhat.  First, we should keep in mind here that the details of the reform of the policy have not yet been worked out:

“The update on birth limits was one sentence long, with details on implementation left to the country’s family planning commission. It was unclear what might happen to children born in violation of rules, whose existence have been concealed and thus lack access to services.”

We should also remember that the Chinese government is still mandating how many children its citizens can have and woe betide any Chinese couple who decide they want a third child!  The horrific human rights abuses necessary to enforce such population control measures (forced sterilisations, abortions etc) are still necessary.  It’s just that for some 10-20 million Chinese women, they are allowed one more baby than before. And, as this terrible story from the BBC’s Martin Patience points out (see the video for his story) even if you are entitled to have a second baby, that doesn’t mean that over-zealous, incompetent officials won’t get it wrong and forcibly kill your baby anyway.  (As an aside, isn’t it always incongruous how we in the West treat abortion? Can you imagine the media publishing a story set in the US or the UK about an abortion at 6 months where the mother describes her “baby” as being “killed”?) 

Having said all that, there is some measure for optimism.  First, millions of parents have slightly more choice in the number of children they will have. Second, potentially millions of abortions will not occur.  Third, the closing of the labour, re-education camps is an unalloyed good. Fourth, this could be another step in the ditching of the one child policy completely.  As the AP reports, the latest easing of this policy will probably not have a huge impact on fertility numbers in China:

“‘A baby boom can be safely ruled out,’ said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California Irvine.

Wang noted that although Chinese couples where both parents have no siblings have for some time been allowed to have a second child, many have elected to have only one.

‘Young people’s reproductive desires have changed,’ he said.”

So the leap in Chinese babies will not be huge. (I’ve read uninformed comments by people bemoaning new waves of Chinese hordes and how we should all learn Mandarin now.):

“Experts estimate that the new rules allowing couples where one partner is an only child to have a second baby will result in 1 million to 2 million extra births per year in the first few years, on top of the 16 million babies born annually in China.

Cai Rong, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the figure could be even lower because of the growing acceptance of small families.”

So although this will not solve China’s demographic problems, it may actually be a test by the Chinese government and the first step in further relaxation and perhaps abolition of the policy:

“Though the limited easing in the policy is unlikely to address China’s demographic concerns, experts see it as a meaningful step toward reversing the strict family planning and returning reproductive rights to parents.

‘China is testing the water now,’ Wang Feng said. ‘When they don’t see a baby boom, there will be more confidence to let the policy go altogether.’”

We can only hope that that is indeed the case.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...