China's two-child policy a year on has its limitations. Photo: iStock
China's two-child policy a year on has its limitations. Photo: iStock

At the beginning of 2016 the Chinese government relaxed its family planning laws to allow all married couples to have a second child. The new policy came into effect in March after formal ratification by the National People’s Congress. But, one year on, how effective has this new policy really been?

During the 12th National People’s Congress in March 2017, Wang Pei’an, Deputy Director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission of China, reported that live births in national hospitals numbered 18.46 million in 2016 and that the fertility rate reached 1.7% — the highest rate since 2000.

This initial progress is owing to hard work by both the mainland government and society over the past year.

To encourage couples to have a second child, the 18th Meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress reviewed the Amendment to the Population and Family Planning Law of the People’s Republic of China.

Their new draft argues for implementing a comprehensive two-child policy and advocates for couples to have two children. Here the government deliberately used the term “advocate” instead of “allow.”

Encouraging fertility has become common in many sectors of Chinese society. For instance, many television stations are making efforts to create a climate of respect for families and fertility, as illustrated by television programs on CCTV’s annual Spring Festival Gala.

But the new two-child policy has not been an easy fix for China’s population problems. According to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s total population reached 1.383 billion in 2016. The annual population increase for the year was 17.86 million, 1.31 million more than in 2015.

But in some provinces the fertility rate is still lower than the previous year. If the total population is to reach 1.42 billion by 2020, China must achieve an average annual population increase of at least 19 million. The population growth rate is still far from satisfactory.

According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, since the beginning of 2016 more than half of the 90 million newly eligible couples included women aged 35 years and older.

Geng Linlin, deputy director of the clinical centre at the commission’s scientific research institute, notes that many of these women find it difficult to have a second baby.

What’s more, according to research undertaken by population scholar Liang Jianzhang, 70% to 80% of Chinese couples want to have two children, but only 3% would dare to do so. Over the next decade, the number of women of peak childbearing age will fall by about 40%. As a result, it is highly likely that the birth rate will fall sharply after 2018.

Even with policy changes, other social factors are continuing to suppress fertility rates. In a survey conducted by the National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2015, respondents cited financial pressures, the work involved in raising children and a shortage of caretakers as primary reasons for not having a second child.

Social factors that limit fertility rates are diverse, from female employment discrimination in maternal and childcare related work to environmental pollution, widespread usage of chemicals and exposure to electromagnetic radiation.

All of these factors influence people’s ability and desire to reproduce. As a result, an increasing number of Chinese are looking overseas to realize their dream of having a second child.

Researchers and experts have advocated for the government to take further measures. Liang Jianzhang, for example, has argued that “since there is an ambitious plan, there must be appropriate measures to be taken to fulfil it.”

Although a comprehensive two-child policy can temporarily alleviate overall population reduction and a shrinking labor force, the more difficult problem is how to slow down China’s aging and deteriorating population structure in the long term. To this end, family planning policies should be completely abolished.

In November 2016, an important report edited by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was published. It points out that lifestyle changes can lead to delays in marriage and childbearing.

To avoid falling into the “low fertility trap” — where people’s fertility and fertility behaviour continue to decline despite seemingly appropriate policy measures — China may need to further relax or even abolish birth restrictions.

On 5 March 2017, Premier Li Keqiang noted in his Government Work Report that “To adapt to the implementation of a comprehensive two child policy, reproductive health care services should be strengthened.” This seems to be a step in the right direction.

But in order to encourage couples to have a second child, the government should look to take further measures that support and subsidize the costs associated with family life — particularly in the areas of education, medical care and employment.

This will reduce the concerns facing those raising children and help to readjust some of the social and financial burdens that unsettle young couples in China today.

Liu Lili is Professor at the Department of Culture and History, Chinese Central Party School, Beijing.

The article first appeared on East Asia Forum.

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