After 36 years, China has decided to end its controversial policy of allowing only one child per family. With this announcement, Chinese parents are now allowed to have two children if that’s their will.
The original long-term policy, introduced in 1979, was a decision made by the ruling Communist Party in order to “keep the population below 1.2 billion” by the 21th Century and stabilise the consumption of natural resources.
It was received with criticism from the outset by different human rights groups and activists for violating family planning and sexual reproductive rights. Later, it was commonly reported that the policy, which appeared to ignore traditional rural values that favour boys over girls, prompted some families to go as far as commit infanticide to ensure they had a son.
As a result, according to estimations made by the Chinese government, more than 400 million new births were prevented until now. The country’s health ministry has confirmed that since 1971 China performed 336 million abortions, implemented 196 million sterilisations and inserted 403 million intrauterine devices.
As a consequence, China is today one of the most ageing populations in the world and is “expected to have a shortage of workers of 4 to 6 million” by 2020, according to a study conducted by the financial company Credit Suisse. These are, indeed, the two official reasons expressed by the authorities to justify the new ‘two-child policy’.
However, analysts agree that the major motive behind it is exclusively economic. “Global market observers are well aware that China’s economic growth has slowed,” says Kenneth Kim, financial strategist for American consultancy Equis Capital in a paper published by Forbes magazine. “But now, China is assured of continuing its strong economic growth.”
Kim explains that the main components of the Asian giant’s GDP are consumption, investment, government spending and exports minus imports. That’s why allowing married couples to have two children “will increase consumption and probably also investment,” he says. “When a country’s population increases, so does its consumption.”
Despite this, some economists recognise that getting more consumers in the market is not going to be an easy task. “Chinese are still reluctant to have more children because raising a child there is expensive,” says Kabir Seghal, former vice-president at JP Morgan, in an article published by Foreign Policy magazine. “It costs parents about $3,622 per year, equivalent to about 43 per cent of an average Chinese family’s take-home pay.”
That’s corroborated by an online survey commissioned by Sina News last October, in which just 29 per cent of couples interviewed said that they would like to have a second child. “Only if the government raises my salary’’ was the most common answer among those who said they would not.
On top of that, even for those who welcomed the announcement, it’s not going to be that simple. “Families that want more than one child will still need to go through an application procedure,” says Barbara Demick, former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, who usually reports on family planning issues. “Especially to unmarried couples and single mothers, restrictions will apply.”
Nevertheless, it seems that the Chinese government is setting the route to keep its spot as the largest economy in the world. From a human rights perspective, however, they still have a lot of work to do in order to guarantee freedom of choice of their citizens. The only sure thing is that the next decade will be determined by China’s economic future.
Asdrubal Santana is a communications specialist whose previous clients include DuPont and Unesco, and a volunteer for NGOs dedicated to promoting human rights and democracy in his native Venezuela. He is currently based in Dublin