China Relaxes One-Child Policy

by Krystin Arneson

Chinese parents might soon be doubling up on the diapers: The nation's government, famous for its one-child family planning policy, is planning to relax its infamous rule — a bit. In families where at least one parent is an only child, the couple will be allowed to have a second child without paying a fine — a major change from the country's original policy, which stipulated that both parents had to be only children to have more than one kid. The decision was authorized during the Communist Party's Central Committee four-day session, which ended Tuesday.

Serious speculation about an impending policy tweak has been in the news since March 2011: Deputy Director of the Committee of Population, Resources, and Environment Wang Yuqing said in a state report that year that a broad two-child policy wouldn't lead to the much-feared boom that would drain social and economic resources in China.

The current policy, in place since 1979, penalizes urban Chinese families for having more than one child by fining them or excluding them from benefits. Exceptions include twins, foreigners living in China, or families who are ethnic minorities — which leaves about 36 percent of the population subject to the policy. Since its implementation in 1979, the policy has been responsible for reducing the birth rate by 400 million.

It's widely known that the enforcement of the penalties varies drastically, and families have gotten clever about circumventing it. In Beijing, where the one-child policy is most strictly enforced, some say the only 'punishment' is having to pay the money to get registration papers for the second child. Other families go to Hong Kong to give birth (where the policy doesn't apply), or even send their second children elsewhere. Oh, and by the way, more than half of the population is allowed a second child if the first baby is a girl. Because, you know, we don't count.

Now that most of the original policy's target generation isn't of reproductive age anymore and birth rates have dropped, the new government under Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang has reportedly been considering a change in the policy. According to a spokesperson for China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, Mao Qun'an, the agency had come up with a "vision to improve the current family planning policy" and only needed the go-ahead from the central government. Talks may be drawing on research about China's population growth:

Demographers argue that in 10 years, China’s population will reach a peak of 1.4 billion and then start to decrease. By which time, birth control will be unnecessary. And they urge the government to allow every family to have a second child as soon as possible.

Birth control, to clarify, means government family planning policies (otherwise all that work is going to go out the window pretty fast).

With global population estimates hovering at around eight billion by 2023, Chinese citizens will make up 17.5 percent of the world's population. But shortly thereafter, the Chinese population is also projected to drop. UN and U.S. Census Bureau statistics vary, but both predict a decline in population between 2030 and 2040 as the current, smaller youth population grows older.

The small population of young people proves that the policy has, to some degree, worked — the birth rate last year was just 12.1 children per 1,000 people. But it's also proof that the plan is going to backfire on China, right around the time the population begins to shrink again.

"A rapidly aging population without an adequate social-security net and shrinking ranks of young workers present a demographic time-bomb for the nation," according to a MarketWatch analysis.

Other financial analysts, ever-curious about the world's most populous nation, agree. "China’s one-child policy might [have contributed] to high growth in the past, but Chinese population is rapidly aging, [economic] growth is slowing and inflation is rising, due partially to this outdated policy," said Bank of America analysts.