A couple of weeks ago there was a very interesting long essay in the Guardian about the (now historical) Chinese one-child policy. It was not complimentary. “Disastrous” was a word that caught my eye in the headline. Not only does the essay criticise the policy as a human rights disaster – constraining the ability of families to decide upon their own family size through heavy fines, forced abortions (which sometimes killed the mother as well as her child) and sterilisations – but it also argues that the policy was unnecessary and has resulted in an economic and demographic nightmare for the country and its ruling party.
What is the aftermath of the one-child policy? Last year the Chinese birth rate was the lowest in Communist China’s history. Officials (the same sought of people who introduced the one child policy in the first place) were hoping for and even expecting about 21-23 million births last year. The actual number was only 15.23 million. (Or two-thirds the hoped for amount.) According to Liang Juanzhang, a professor of economics at Peking University, the peak in Chinese births happened in 2016 and have been dropping ever since. He wrote in January:
“What we can expect now is that the number of newborns will continue to shrink rapidly in 2019 and beyond…It can be said with certainty that even though 2018 saw a low number of births, that number will not be surpassed for the next 100 years. China will never see more than 15 million newborns in the future.”
This will lead to a rapidly ageing population pyramid. By 2050 a third of the country’s population will be made up of those over the age of 60. This not only will be a massive strain on state services, but will also fall heavily on those (mainly sole) children who bear the brunt of caring for elderly parents.
With these sorts of figures in mind, it is no wonder that the one child policy was abandoned in 2016 and the two child policy was introduced under which all married couples can have two children. Many believe that this change in policy direction was a few decades years too late. Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, believes that the one child policy should have been scrapped 28 years ago and that the Chinese birth rate would have moderated naturally. But unfortunately family planners relied on overinflated school enrolment and overreported births be hospitals, individuals and local governments. Once the mistake was realised, the Party did not want to admit that it was wrong and tell people that they suffered through horrific human rights abuses and invasion of privacy by the State for nothing. So when the policy was finally scrapped it was not because it was wrong, but because times had changed.
Unfortunately for the Chinese government, the Chinese people are not getting with the programme. Years of propaganda (and coerced practice) has done the work of making one child families the norm. Improving education standards have also made children ruinously expensive: one man expects that his son’s education will suck up half his income when his child starts in kindergarten! Interestingly enough, many women resented the change to the two-child policy since they had already had one child, had gone back into the workforce and were suddenly viewed as a potential liability by their employers. Instead of having a state-enforced “complete family”, women with one child could suddenly legitimately have a second one. Ye Liu, a sociologist and lecturer in international development at King’s College London, noted that many Chinese women she interviewed felt like “they were experiments of the state…they feel like they are forever being used by the state laboratory.” And so, despite the relaxation in official policy, the Chinese people are not having more babies.
In response, the government at the national and local levels have started to introduce further incentives to have children. There are subsidies, propaganda initiatives and new regulations on workplace leave. Abortions are becoming harder to get in some provinces, while others have made divorce a lengthier and more difficult process. But the fear is that, if and when these policies fail and birthrates continue to subside, the government will turn to the tried and tested method: coercion. The state-run People’s Daily said in an article last year that “the birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself but also a state affair”. Such language understandably alarms many.
So in the years to come, people may get to see The Handmaid’s Tale in real life. And not run by Mike Pence, but instead by the Communist Party of China.