Slow and steady is the way to ease China's one-child policy

Hu Shuli says China will greatly benefit from allowing couples to have a second child, a decision that belongs in the home anyway

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:11pm

There's no doubt China must review its family planning policy to meet the challenge of a greying population. But how? Recent comments by officials at the National Health and Family Planning Commission have sparked a debate.

Allowing more couples to have a second child is clearly the goal. But the last thing the government wants is a sudden population surge if rules were relaxed too quickly.

Any change to the one-child policy, which has been in force for more than 30 years, requires careful consideration. Policymakers must lay out their plan, complete with a timetable, and adjust it as necessary during implementation.

The last thing the government wants is a surge if rules were relaxed too quickly

China has become a victim of its own success in population control. Its fertility rate has dropped to between 1.04 and 1.5 - depending on the method of calculation by different government departments - which is far lower than the replacement level of 2.1. UN estimates say the population will peak at 1.45 billion, in a decade or more, before starting to slide.

Population explosion is no longer a serious worry; a skewed demographic structure is, thanks to the combined effect of the one-child policy and longer life spans. China became a greying society as early as 1999, according to the UN, with growing pressures put on its pension system and social services. Its labour force even shrank last year for the first time in recent memory. As a result, the calls to relax birth controls will only grow louder.

After all, the costs of these controls have been immense, both in terms of resources and political capital. In the name of enforcing the law, some local governments and administrative departments have infringed people's rights by resorting to abusive, sometimes illegal, tactics, a blow to the image of party and government.

Conversely, allowing more couples to have a second child can help ease the labour shortage that impedes growth, relieve pressure on social security payouts and reduce the huge costs of sustaining a family planning bureaucracy staffed by over 400,000 people. It will also help prevent the tragedy of "left behind parents" whose only child died young, and help curb the abduction and selling of children by officials who misuse the law to make money.

The long-term benefits are immense. One, it will slowly move family planning decisions out of government hands and into people's homes, where they belong, in line with the new leadership's pledge to respect people's rights.

Two, it will boost the economy by reshaping the demographic structure to support sustained growth.

Three, it will help to correct the gender ratio imbalance that has been a consequence of society's preference for boys.

The economic pay-off alone makes it worthwhile. According to Deutsche Bank estimates, while easing the one-child policy will have little effect on the economy in the next 16 years, between 2030 and 2050 the move could raise GDP growth by 0.2 percentage points every year, and help reduce the pension shortfall.

Of course, promoting more births will raise China's population. To some, this will tax already scarce resources. But children are the human resource of the future and they will more than pay their way with their labour and productivity. They are needed if China is to boost its domestic consumption.

The real worry is the extent of the so-called pent-up desire for children. If curbs on a second child are eased, there could well be a sharp surge in population growth, which would place considerable stress on limited public services and the environment. With population ageing already in effect, having more babies to feed could worsen the resource burden.

Some scholars think the birth rate is already falling, with or without the curb, so if the one-child policy were scrapped the population increase would be no more than, say, four to five million people, which the Chinese economy can well handle. Yet others warn of a boost of over 10 million.

Policymakers now steering China's economic transition are right to worry about the effect of a population increase, and are likely to be cautious. They have several options.

One, they could extend the policy to allow couples, at least one of whom is an only child, to raise a second child. Two, they could roll out the measure in major cities where population numbers are beginning to slide. Three, allowing a second child nationwide could wait until China reaches its goal of doubling per capita income by 2020. Policymakers should be flexible.

Any policy change must be clearly spelled out and timely. Once it has been implemented, the government must monitor it to make adjustments where needed, putting on the brakes if the birth rate surges and rolling out the plan faster otherwise.

The end goal of any change to China's family planning policy must be to return reproductive rights to the individual and the family. The change can't be rushed, but neither should it be delayed indefinitely.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.