Friday, November 15, 2013

The one-child policy - Smashing a relic

AS REFORMS go it may not seem very bold: China will now allow couples in which one partner is an only child to have two children. But the only thing that dies harder than an old policy is a bad policy. The one-child policy, now more than 30 years old, is dying slowly but surely, and not before time

The new bit of loosening, announced today amid a series of reforms decided at an important plenum held this week by the Communist Party Central Committee, should allow perhaps 10m families to have a second child, estimates Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine. Of those, he figures half will do so in the next few years, creating a bump (as opposed to a boom) of perhaps 1m to 2m more babies a year, on top of 16m births a year now. The smallness of that bump would be a big deal politically. Conservatives have long played on fears of unleashing pent-up reproductive demand to keep the one-child policy in place.

“This policy change should assure policymakers that the Malthusian fear is unwarranted and lead to a quick full abolishment of the policy,” says Mr Wang, referring to the theory that population will increase faster than the means to sustain it. He, like many of his colleagues in China, believes the one-child policy should be scrapped immediately. China’s demographic landscape has aged dramatically: the labour force shrank in 2012 for the first time in almost 50 years, and the ratio of taxpayers to pensioners will decline from almost five to one to just over two to one by 2030. 

Fertility rates in Beijing and Shanghai are among the lowest in the world.

On this last point, many suggest that loosening the policy will matter little anyway. Most couples in cities don’t want more than one child, according to surveys. Enough exceptions already exist—for couples in rural areas whose first child is a girl, for ethnic minorities, and for couples where both parents are only children—that the policy’s hold on the population has diminished.
All the more reason to dismantle the policy, reformers say. Standing in their way is an entrenched bureaucracy (of up to 500,000 people) that earned billions of dollars in fines in 2012 for penalising violations of the policy—and that doesn’t include bribes for circumventing it. Chinese authorities still claim the population-control system to be a success. They say it has prevented more than 400m births, saving the country from overpopulation; demographers dismiss this claim, and believe the birthrate would have declined significantly anyway as society grew richer.

Now the policy is an unpopular relic of social control. For millions of couples it has imposed abortions and sterilisations.  For millions more it has imposed costly fines, representing lost savings (or new debts) that they could have spent on education, health and housing. Some couples must spend tens of thousands of dollars to have a second child. In March the family-planning bureaucracy was merged with the health ministry. That was to some a signal that the old relic may be smashed one day soon. Other reform measures to come in the wake of this week’s plenum may have a wider impact on Chinese society than this change to the one-child policy. But few will be more welcome. “The Economist”

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