Three is just one too many. Photo: iStock/Getty Images
Three is just one too many for Chinese parents. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

China has quietly scrapped most, if not all, its draconian birth control penalties as authorities reverse policy recourse to tackle a looming demographic crisis.

The State Council and Communist Party’s Central Committee laid out the changes in an updated document on the implementation of its revamped population policy paper at the end of July. 

The changes follow the earlier easing of family planning restrictions to enable and encourage couples to have up to three children.

Beijing has granted more childbearing autonomy to its people with a moratorium on laws and measures, ranging from fines, internment camps, jail and even forced abortions, that aimed to deter unapproved pregnancies as part of a one-child policy that was introduced in 1982.

Now, couples wanting more than three babies will not face legal action as the nation’s demographic picture is a dire inversion of the runaway population growth seen in the early 1980s. 

The world’s second-largest economy is heading toward a demographic cliff, with its gross fertility rate slumping to among the world’s lowest levels of about 1.3, according to a census conducted last year.

This figure is lower than the average of 1.6 among OECD nations and even trails fast greying Japan’s 1.4. About 12 million new births were registered in China last year, down from 2016’s 17 million. 

Beijing appears to realize the enormity of its population crisis as it took top policymakers less than a month between announcing the nationwide census results and the relaxation of birth quotas in June. 

Too few babies mean China’s population is declining. Photo: Asia Times

The latest birth control reversal has been applauded by observers and some couples in their prime reproductive ages. Beijing fast-tracked the change, moving well before the next parliamentary session in March to amend the law.

“The sheer size of the Chinese population is not a liability but the base for China’s future growth and internal demand, and sustainable growth must be maintained as the ultimate source of overall growth,” President Xi Jinping told a Communist Party Politburo meeting in June.

The president reportedly decided on the “optimal and propitious” number of three for the family size. Xi, 68, has only one daughter.    

So far the response of young couples has been lacking. The National Health Commission has reportedly said that there had been no notable increase in free pre-pregnancy and first antenatal visit bookings at public hospitals across Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other populous cities since June.

Preliminary figures from the National Statistics Bureau also indicate that new births in the first half of 2021 remain “flat” compared with a year ago. 

Eric Mer, a Peking University assistant professor of political science, told Asia Times that it would take time to gauge people’s reaction to Beijing’s de facto scrapping of its remaining birth control laws after the two-child policy was adopted in 2015.

However, no one should expect an imminent baby boom, he said.

“The dividends of the two-child policy in place since 2015 were short-lived and there will only be some modicum of benefit from the further loosening to three as well as no birth control violation penalties,” Mer said.

“We are talking about merely one million additional births [from the new three-child policy] each year on the national scale. Beijing has not committed to any drastic changes in its population policy paper, likely due to its reluctance to admit the prolonged execution of the one-child policy until 2014 was a mistake.

There have been a few piecemeal remedies from Beijing to address the common gripes of newlyweds and parents about the cost of marriage, childbearing and education but a holistic approach is sorely lacking. Beijing must act boldly and quickly before babies become an endangered species in the world’s most populous country.

A Chinese couple holding their marriage certificates pose for photos in a sunflower field in Beijing on July 9, 2021. Photo: AFP / Jade Gao

Observers note Beijing has yet to roll out any “big bang” pro-natalist policies. There have been some related pilot schemes such as capping engagement payments from the bride to the groom’s family and the number of tables at weddings to make marriages easier and cheaper for low-income couples, especially in rural areas. 

The clampdown on tutorial schools has been viewed by some observers as more a move to target tech conglomerates and reassert state control over education than a pro-birth and pro-family initiative aimed at reducing the costs of child-rearing.

In the meantime, Beijing is allowing for a widespread and open public debate on birth policies, with some aggressive recommendations being put forth by advisors and opinion leaders that have been amplified by state media.  

Liang Jianzhang, a professor of economics with the PKU’s Guanghua School of Management, said his studies showed Beijing must invest no less than 5% of GDP annually to lift the national fertility rate to the average of OECD nations and at least 10% to bring the rate to a sustainable level of 2.1 in the next 10-15 years. 

Liang told Xinhua that his advice would be for Beijing to hand out cash subsidies of as much as 1 million yuan (US$154,600) to each additional child born in the country under the new three-child policy. 

State media have echoed his recommendations. The People’s Daily noted in an op-ed that straightforward cash handouts could be a quick solution to alleviate the financial burden on parents and that Beijing should “think out of the box” to give more incentives for families. 

“Investing in our population will guarantee high returns,” the article opined. 

Regional governments have already started taking baby steps in offering pro-birth incentives. Panzhihua, a city in western Sichuan province, announced this week that parents raising their second and third child will each get a monthly allowance of 500 yuan (US$77) until their babies reach the age of three.   

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