Beijing’s strict birth restrictions of the past kept the national population from surpassing a level that some say would not have allowed China to achieve its current level of prosperity. Photo: AFP
Zhou Xin
Zhou Xin

China must take stock of its birth-planning policies and learn from the past

  • China says its strict birth restrictions helped prevent a ‘population explosion’, but at what cost?
  • A comprehensive assessment could seek to redress those wronged by brutal family-planning measures
With “birth planning” fading from Beijing’s vocabulary as couples are now allowed to have three children, it is time for Chinese authorities to conduct a thorough review.

One perspective among analysts is that China’s family-planning policy – in reality, its stringent birth restrictions – helped facilitate the country’s economic rise by staving off a “population explosion”.

The restrictions are said to have reduced births by 400 million and kept China’s population from surpassing 1.7 billion people – a level that some say would not have allowed China to achieve its current level of prosperity.

Thus, China’s family planning was seemingly necessary, and it was the right policy to deliver its intended results. But times and circumstances have changed dramatically.

There have been various assessments of the policy, known as the biggest demographic experiment in human history.

Critics argue that a mandatory one-child limit was implemented using the wrong demographic perceptions. Its implementation was about persuasion and incentives, such as subsidies for one-child families, but it also involved punishments such as hefty fines for violators and, in extreme cases, forced abortions and sterilisation.
But instead of addressing a feared “population explosion”, it has created a real demographic crisis that could dwarf that seen in Japan. And it is costing China dearly.

A middle-of-the-road view may posit that China needed a family-planning policy, but its implementation was too brutal and too harsh.

China’s bureaucratic inertia prevented the policy from being modified in a timely and sufficient manner, and while its leaders are now voicing support for the three-child policy, many local family-planning agencies are still thinking of fining families with more than two children.

A review of the family-planning policy, therefore, could help get the whole country on the same page. As the latest Politburo statement replaced “birth planning” with “ birth optimisation”, that might be the impetus to assess the policy.

The purpose of such an assessment would not be to dictate who is right or wrong. It should be forward-looking – if the policy was a success, what good practices can China borrow from the past to encourage couples to have multiple children? And if it was a mistake, or if its implementation was problematic, what measures can be taken to correct some of the wrongs?

For instance, could fines collected from those violators of family-planning policies be refunded? Might past violators who lost jobs be repositioned? And could those who have suffered from brutal treatment be given restitution?

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Time to reassess family planning policies