After 35 years of consistently strict government control over family size, China’s so-called “one child policy” seems to be winding down – at least for some. Recent headlines quote the authorities in Shanghai going so far as to plead with their residents to “have more children”.
To the policy’s many critics, this is long overdue: China faces an ageing population, epitomised by the four grandparent, two parent, one child family, and couples all over the country are simultaneously looking after their child and two sets of elderly parents.
Preference for male offspring, combined with birth restrictions, is blamed by many for leaving China’s population with an astonishingly skewed gender ratio: nowadays, there are 33m more men than women. Sex-selective abortions, although officially illegal, are often blamed.
So on the surface, the announcements in Shanghai and beyond seem to herald the Chinese state’s retreat from the domain of birth control. But this is misleading. Once we look beyond the narrow confines of a few global cities and the central government, it’s clear that state control over births is simply being retooled and reworked, not discontinued.
Town and country
The most significant recent changes to state birthing policies took place in 2013, particularly at the Third Plenum, the meeting of the 18th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which saw the announcement that the one child policy would be officially relaxed to allow families two children if one parent is an only child.
But even at a legislative level, the new “relaxation” is mostly applicable only to urban couples.
By law, rural citizens are already able to have a second child if their first is a girl, and many others have had a second child without permission. So most rural couples will be under the same regulations as before – while single women are still not permitted to have a child outside of wedlock.
Procreation preferences in cities have already been radically influenced by the Chinese state. Nowadays, most urban couples want one child; for them, the cost of living is rising, and many grew up without siblings themselves anyway. After 35 years of restrictions on births, it will take some time for the state to undo the work of its highly effective one child propaganda.
Any effective state incentive of births will need more than a relaxation of regulations. The state will need to complement legislative easing with state subsidies on education, childcare and other child related services, so parents can afford to have more than one child.
But Shanghai and a few other first-tier cities do not a country make.
The majority of Chinese citizens still do want more than just one child. That much is can be inferred by the first girl rural policy. Without this exception, leaders feared the “one child policy” would be impossible to implement.
There fears obviously proved well-founded. Some 13m children were recorded as lacking birth registration in the 2010 census meaning many parents illegally had children without permission, and did not register their children because they feared punishment.
So the Chinese state is clearly trying to stimulate childbirth in some cities, such as Shanghai, where couples have fewer children. But in other parts of the country, many couples still have to pay a heavy price for having more than one child.
There are good reasons why many of China’s regional administrations want to keep the one child mechanisms in place. Local governments still get a significant revenue stream from “social compensation fees,” fines to parents who have had a child without permission. With this revenue, the Population and Family Planning Commission still holds a strong influence over local politics in many areas – so it’s understandable that local governments have declined to relax their birthing policies.
The influence of the commission is amplified in the countryside. Although the merger of the Health and Population and Family Planning Commission took place in the national and provincial governments, the two bodies have not merged in county governments and below. In many rural areas they have separate domains of duty, and separate spheres of influence.
Meanwhile, abandoning birth restrictions would immediately rob many people of their livelihoods, since their jobs are linked to institutions controlling childbirth. In Henan alone the Population and Family Planning Commission employs 17,000 administrators and 22,000 nursing and technical staff. Support organisations boast a total membership of 9.6m volunteers, tasked with everything from spreading propaganda to monitoring menstrual cycles.
And for those living outside the major cities, the consequences of violating the policy remain dire.
In my own research, speaking to people who have been punished by the one child policy, I found many parents are still being charged fines varying from £3,000 to £33,000 for having a second child. Mothers still face state imposed controls over their contraceptive choices: those with one child should use an IUD, while those with two children should be sterilised.
The central government knows well that institutions as deeply ingrained as this one cannot disappear overnight, and especially not when money is involved. It is therefore allowing only gradual reform, so as to balance the needs of changing demographics with the demands of squeezed local governments.
But we should be cautious in interpreting the latest headlines as the government reducing control over births. Rather, the state’s control continues in a new era: stimulating births in cities, maintaining restrictions in the countryside.