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Demography is Destiny

The bifurcation of Chinese family planning policy

The bifurcation of Chinese family planning policy

by Marcus Roberts | February 26, 2019

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The one child policy has not turned out to be quite so beneficial to China as its planners had hoped. Headlines like this one: “China’s problem is not too many children but too few” sum up the issues facing the world’s most populous nation (for now). The natural growth rate in 2018 was, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s lowest since 1961. Its estimated fertility rate of 1.02 makes it one of the least-fecund countries in the world. Its ageing and soon-to-be declining population is adding to its economic headwinds. China’s leaders recognise this and are seeking to persuade families to have more than one child; for example, in 2016 the one child policy was replaced by a two child policy. But as this report demonstrates, one of the hurdles that China’s leaders face is the self-interest of its local officials: policing the family size of Chinese citizens is lucrative.

The fines and other, more brutal, punishments that were meted out to parents who had more than one child supported a large number of bureaucratic positions. Local officials had immense power to keep tabs on couples' fertility (down to village officials recording women’s menstrual cycles) and the one child policy justified this power and their jobs. Furthermore, the fines levied on families for having extra children constitute a large proportion (15-30 percent) of local governments’ discretionary funding. State media reports say these fines can be used for a range of purposes from salaries to travel expenses. There are thus a lot of bureaucrats with a self-interest in the preservation of restrictive child policies in China.

And this is why stories like the following are still occurring in China despite its leadership’s stated desire for more children. The Wangs have recently been ordered by local authorities in Shangdong province to pay a “social maintenance fee” of 64,626 yuan after the birth of their third child in 2018. After a number of deadlines for payment were missed, the family’s entire savings of 22,957 yuan were frozen last month. This has caused an understandable amount of controversy with one political commentator noting that “The country is doing all it can to encourage childbirth but the local governments need money, so we end with this sort of madness.”

Of course, the central government has only itself to blame for this. The two child policy still only allows two children, and the local government bureaucrats argue that they are just following the law, citing the exact articles of it upon which they were able to levy a “social maintenance fee”. Despite some relaxation of family planning rules recently, there is still considerable resistance to lifting controls entirely. The National Health Commission has rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning entirely. Article 25 of China’s Constitution states that “The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development.” And years of this sort of legal regime and thinking has meant that Chinese society has changed. As Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison says, China now has a distorted attitude towards family, society and childbearing where one or no children families are the norm.

Even if the Chinese government were to remove all laws relating to family planning control (which they should) there is little hope, based upon past experience, that this would much improve China’s demographic problems. The high costs of housing, education, health care and safe foods, as well as the lure of consumeristic pleasures such as foreign travel mean that having children is unattractive to many Chinese couples. The Wangs should be held up as exemplars if China wants to boost its birth rates, not fined into penury.

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