In October 2015, China’s National People’s Congress approved a dramatic policy change: the country’s controversial one-child policy was finished. In its place, the two-child policy, under which all married couples could have two children, would be in force from 1 January 2016.
The two-child policy is less the result of a sudden moral reckoning than of economic and demographic calculations. The one-child policy has left China with one of the worst gender imbalances in the world, and children without siblings are struggling to support ageing relatives on their own. What’s more, there are fewer and fewer younger workers to replace a rapidly aging workforce. On its current path, by 2050 China will have only 1.6 workers for every retiree, a ratio comparable to Japan or Singapore. But unlike those countries, China, to quote a phrase frequently used by economists, may well get old before it gets rich. To offset population decline, China has set its annual birthrate target at twenty million births, an increase, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission of three million additional births a year.
In many ways, the two-child policy is an extension of what already was in recent years a growing body of legal exceptions to the one-child policy. Ethnic minorities were always exempt from the policy while, in 1987, families living in the countryside whose first child was a girl were also allowed to have a second child. In November 2013, couples in which either parent was an only child were also allowed to have a second child. However, only 700,000 of the eleven million qualifying couples applied for permission to have a second child, raising questions about what percentage of the ninety million Chinese couples that qualify to have a second child under the two-child policy will take advantage of the new policy.
There are two major reasons why Chinese couples have been slow to embrace the relaxation in family planning policy. They may consider the cost of raising a second child simply to be too great, particularly in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where property prices are some of the highest in the world. China’s top law-making bodies have discussed giving two-child families economic and educational subsidies but are yet to implement any specific policies.
The second reason is cultural. After almost four decades and at least two generations under the one-child policy, which has been not only enforced by law but normalised through education, media and culture, many couples no longer desire to have more than one child. Cash incentives, government propaganda, and slightly more generous vacation policies might not have any noticeable effect in changing societal attitudes.
If large numbers of couples do decide to have a second child, another possible problem relates to gender equality. A 2013 national survey of Chinese college-age women conducted by the All China Women’s Federation found that ninety percent of women had experienced gender discrimination while seeking employment. More generous maternal leave and family planning policies will make women who decide to have two children more expensive to hire, especially without additional state support. Without first creating comprehensive social programs to support working women and tackle larger issues of sexism in the workplace and society at large, the two-child policy could not only fall short of its goals but also undo years of progress in women’s rights.
Implementation of the two-child policy has been delegated to provincial governments to allow for consideration of the varying circumstances of each province. Faced with unreliable population statistics, provinces face the daunting task of calculating reasonable birth targets and then calibrating social policy to achieve the desired results—a social engineering experiment that will have enormous implications for China’s society and economy for years to come.