A rather remarkable turnaround has occurred in China. For a country famous for having the most comprehensive sets of policies designed to limit births, it is now introducing new policies to support parents who have a second child.
In November 2015, China announced it would abandon its one-child policy and switch to a national two-child policy. The change came into force on January 1, 2016, with the immediate rationale being to tackle China’s rapidly ageing (and projected declining) population.
Some predicted a huge baby boom. Others – including me – suggested that the reforms were “too little, too late”, and that “simply allowing people to have more children does not mean they will.”
We will improve the supporting policies to complement the decision to allow all couples to have two kids … We will encourage the development of kindergartens open to all children.
The theme was seen across the March meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC). Xu Ma, an NPC deputy and director of the National Research Institute of Family Planning, stated that:
A lack of childcare and fewer job opportunities are major obstacles to Chinese women having a second baby … To help working mothers, community nurseries should be opened to care for children younger than three-years-old.
Meanwhile, NPC deputy Zhu Lieyu suggested that:
The government should offer mothers of two children a living allowance for three years, and the sum should be 70-80% of the average per capita income in their specific part of the country.
More concretely, the Chinese minister of finance, Lou Jiwei, was quoted in state media to have submitted a set of proposals to reform individual income tax to support couples to have a second child.
While mortgage relief for couples who have two children appears not to have made it into the latest round of tax reforms, there is evidence that education costs may be added to the list of costs deductible for tax relief.
Local incentives coming thick and fast
At a local level, other policies to support childbearing are already being introduced. In late March 2016, it was announced that mothers in Beijing would be entitled to an extra month’s maternity leave, while new fathers would be entitled to 15 days paternity leave.
For some time now, studies have observed family planning officials in some large cities actively encouraging couples to take advantage of their rights to have a second child. In this way, local governments could become ever more proactive in designing policies to support couples to have a second child.
Not worked elsewhere in Asia
Governments across Pacific Asia have been introducing increasingly far-reaching policies in recent years to support and encourage childbearing in an attempt to stem extremely rapid ageing resulting from very low fertility rates.
Perhaps the most expansive and famous is in Singapore. As well as government sponsored dating events and wide-ranging maternity benefits, parents are effectively handed “baby bonuses” and tax rebates of tens of thousands of pounds per child.
Yet, in each of these settings fertility has stayed resolutely low; not least in Singapore which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.
This is because the financial subsidies simply do not come close to offsetting the high costs of childbearing in these countries. Costs are further exaggerated by expectations of huge investment in education and other activities, sometimes called “education fever”. These policies are also not able to adequately address some of the more fundamental reasons for limiting family sizes, such as fragile employment and the “triple burden” placed on women to work and take primary responsibility for both children and elderly parents.
A helping hand
There is now a broad agreement that it is not just the family planning policies which pushed – and kept – fertility down in China. As such, just changing the policy is likely to have only a limited impact.
Assuming, though, that many of the other reasons for low fertility are common to both China and elsewhere in Asia, and given the limited success elsewhere in turning birth rates around, we might question how effective policies to support childbearing will be at increasing the Chinese fertility rate.
But I think that this misses the point. If the new policies set out to encourage childbearing in order to achieve certain key population “goals”, then they may well not succeed. But the language of the new policy announcement does not appear to suggest this. In a break from the “old” way of talking about family planning, this “new” language is much more about “supporting” than “encouraging”. This is not just semantics. If the new policies are designed to support citizens to be able to meet their aspirations in terms of family, work and life, then their success should be judged on this rather than the birth rate in years to come.
Switching from the world’s most restrictive family planning regime to offering incentives for childbirth is a remarkable turnaround. But it may well be that the truly revolutionary aspect of this policy change is the switch from “controlling and shaping” citizen’s actions to meet the needs of the nation, towards “supporting and enabling” them to meet their own personal aspirations.