China puts an end to its notorious one-child policy enforcer

Family planning commission to disappear as Beijing relaxes population controls

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 10:25am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 March, 2018, 11:14pm

China’s family planning commission, which for nearly four decades enforced the country’s notorious one-child policy, will be absorbed by a new agency as the government stops trying to clamp down on births.

The new National Health Commission will take over responsibility for population management from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, which dates back in various forms to 1981 and known for its use of forced abortions and sterilisation, and hefty fines to limit births.

The phrase “family planning” will disappear from the ministerial structure, as China grapples with a shrinking labour pool and rapidly ageing population.

The new health commission will also be responsible for national health policy, reforming in the medical system, controlling tobacco use, and overseeing occupational health, according to a proposal presented the National People’s Congress in Beijing on Tuesday.

“It is a historic change and watershed moment,” said Yi Fuxian, a long-standing critic of China’s birth control policy and a researcher at the University of Wisconsin.

“China is shifting from population control to population development.”

As late as in 2013, filmmaker Zhang Yimou and his wife Chen Ting were fined 7.48 million yuan for having three extra children.

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At the time, commission spokesman Mao Qunan said the agency’s work had reduced the number of births in China by “400 million”.

While China still has not dropped “family planning” from its constitution, Beijing is clearly abandoning restrictive birth control policies to embrace a more balanced approach.

According to Huang Wenzheng, co-founder of population policy NGO, birth control policies are “about to exit history”.

“Organisational reshuffles at the State Council usually pave the way for policy revisions,” Huang said.

China has gradually relaxed the one-child policy over the last few years, announcing in October 2015 that from the start of the next year, all couples could have two children.

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Other policies designed to discourage people from having babies were also gradually lifted. In October 2017, an NPC legislative affairs subcommittee asked officials from five provinces – Guangdong, Yunnan, Jiangxi, Hainan, and Fujian – to revise rules allowing companies to fire their employees who had extra children.

And during the Communist Party’s five-yearly national congress last year, President Xi Jinping dropped the usual reference to “family planning”, saying China would promote “the coordination of childbirth policies with other economic and social policies”. It was the first time in nearly 30 years that the party work report did not contain a reference to “birth control”.

At the time, Li Bin, the commission’s minister, said the authority would use “scientific judgment” of China’s demographic situation to harness family planning policies.