China has opted to ease its “one-child” policy, which for decades has limited the birthrate of the world’s most populous nation, according to newly released details from the country’s most recent meeting of top leaders.
According to media reports, the final document produced during the Plenum declared that China would launch a major reform its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child. The policy already exempts those Chinese who still dwell in rural communities, who can have two so long as the first one is a girl, as well as Chinese citizens who aren’t members of the Han ethnic group. Given that the Han make up 92 percent of the population, the number of minorities having two children places them in no danger of losing their majority status.
The alternative for city-dwellers who wish to skirt the one-child policy is to pay a penalty — known as a “social maintenance fee” — to gain a second child access to the household registration documents, or “hukou,” which entitle residents to subsidized health, housing and education. That fee can range from 5,000 yuan ($820) to as much as 1.3 million yuan ($213,000) in the case of one couple. Not everyone can afford to pay such a steep rate, resulting in situations like that of Li Xue, unable to attend school as a child and forced to use her mother and sister’s identity to purchase medicine.
Since its inception in 1979, the policy has been used as a warning to the West over the otherness that China represents and the repression of the Communist government. Legislators have issued statements over it countless times on the floor of the House and Senate and op-eds describing the brutality of the policy in practice. State-pressured abortions are often the result of accidental pregnancies, a fact that abortion activists in the United States have not been shy to seize upon.
The policy has also resulted in a huge skew towards male children over female children, as families use various methods — such as selective abortion or abandoning female babies to their fate — to ensure their only child is a son. The results of that imbalance, and how high it is compared to the rest of the world, is illustrated in this chart:
The new change will make roughly 10 million couples eligible to have a second child, according to one-child policy expert Wang Feng. Wang estimates bout half of those who can will do so in the next few years, according to The Economist’s Gady Epstein. That’s sure to have an effect on raising China’s birthrate, which had already been falling prior to the policy’s enactment, and has been below the 2.1 births per woman needed to replace a population.
The pending spike in births is sure to help China prevent what some experts had called a pending demographics disaster, with the number of elderly skyrocketing and not enough young to care for them. Economic concerns also likely played into the decision, as labor rates in China have been on the rise recently, cutting into China’s competitive edge on the world market. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, migrant workers’ average pay rose to 2,049 yuan ($322) a month in 2011. The 16 percent annual labor cost rise in Zhejiang province has led to investment in robotics as a way to replace workers who are quickly becoming too expensive.
The news broke on Friday through the state-run Xinhua’s news site, that the change was decided during the Third Party Plenum of the ruling Communist Party, a rare gathering in which economic decisions are made regarding China’s future. While earlier overviews of the decisions made at the conference held last weekend had been made public, only now are details beginning to emerge.