First one child, now two - but China's birth control policy is here to stay
Changing the number of children from one to two might lessen need for harsh enforcement, but it won't disappear altogether, experts say
The mainland's decades-old birth-control regime would remain a "fundamental state policy", continuing to rule and affect peoples' lives despite the scrapping of the controversial one-child restriction, experts said.
While couples across the country celebrated their long-awaited right to have a second child, the top family planner was quick to point out that the birth policy remained in place.
"The birth policy is a fundamental state policy that China must uphold in the long run," Wang Peian, vice-minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, said on Friday.
Couples must still comply with the rules of the policy, such as applying for birth permits for their expected children, and paying fines if they have more than two children.
"Although the policy has been relaxed …[the commission] will still prevent people from having three children or more. They will still oversee birth control issues," said Cai Yong, an expert on the demographics of China at the University of North Carolina.
Family planning official Wang said that couples would no longer need approval for a second child, but must "go through procedures according to relevant rules" if they wanted a larger family.
Liang Zhongtang, a demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said that official rhetoric aside, couples would still need to work through government approvals.
Since the government first began to relax the one-child policy, the so-called social support fee - a fine imposed on couples for having children in violation of the birth policy - has been a topic of heated debate. Experts said the fine would most likely remain as a punitive deterrent.
"The whole birth control system is built on punishment. If there is no punishment, the government can't do anything about people who violate the policy. Therefore, it will certainly continue," Liang said.
Rights groups have voiced strong concerns on this matter.
"Characterising this latest modification as 'abandoning' the one-child policy is misleading," said Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers.
"A two-child policy will not end the human rights abuses caused by the one-child policy, including forced abortions, involuntary sterilisation or selective abortion of baby girls."
Huang Rongqing, a retired demographer, said cases of forced abortion and sterilisation were likely to wane as local family planning officials were given more relaxed quotas.
Liang agreed, saying that forced practices were less common these days as many officials were scared their behaviour would be exposed online.
But this did not mean the practice would disappear.
"As long as there is a [birth] policy, this kind of compulsory enforcement will be hard to avoid," he said.
Liang said China still had a long way to go before scrapping its birth policy. "I don't regard [the two-child rule] as progress, because it is still part of a wrong, unreasonable and absurd system. The birth policy itself violates human rights," he said.
Yi Fuxian, a veteran critic of the birth policy, said the family planning commissions should be dismantled as the country relaxed its birth policy.
Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine, agreed.
"[The family planning commission] has finished its historic task and it should be taken to the garbage bin," he said.
"The policy change can save resources that can be directed to more worthy causes like health, women and youth," the demographer said.
Additional reporting by Verna Yu