By Avinash Godbole
The population policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was in news recently after Vice-President Joe Biden mentioned it, quite nonchalantly, in his speech at the Sichuan University in China. Biden’s soft approach has irked his critics as he did not criticize PRC for the problematic aspects of one-child policy, including its coercive nature and human rights abuses. In addition, his comment added some fuel to the conservative Republican campaign. In essence, what Biden said was right as the one-child policy is not sustainable in the long run since it is likely to turn the population pyramid upside down with the percentage of dependent population (elderly plus children) surpassing that of the earning age group in China.
History of the Population Policy
This policy was implemented in context of the increasing population due to improved longevity on the one hand and reduced agricultural production and industrial job growth on the other hand. After 30 years of practice, it has had both positive and negative, long term consequences for China. Second, this policy was part of the economic modernization program undertaken by the new leadership; it favoured ‘fewer and skilled hands’ as against ‘more hands, more output’ idea of Mao’s era.
Implementation of the policy
One-child policy was one of the last of the mass based campaigns that marked the Maoist era in China. Under this policy, urban married couples are allowed to have only one child. The Party leadership factored in a lot of deviations in the one-child policy with various categories of people including minorities being allowed to have a second child.
Mass media and workplace education methods were used to project the incentives of single child families. At the same time, strict disincentives were put in place for preventing non compliance like cash fines – as high as five times the annual income of the violators, restrictions on promotion for government employees who had second child, restrictions on receiving welfare benefits, prohibitions or higher fees in school admissions and so on. As a part of this policy, late marriages and delayed childbirths were encouraged as well as strictly monitored. After the policy, the average number of children per woman dropped from 2.8 in 1979 to 1.5 in 2010.
Despite this success in numbers, the population policy is mired in its own problems:
a) Coercion: At the beginning of the policy, overambitious targets were set and it was decided to reach zero population growth by 2000. In addition, party officials were given targets for policy implementation within their localities and their promotions within the party depended on their success in ensuring compliance. This led to uncontrolled coercion by overzealous officials and as a consequence, stories of forced abortions and sterilizations fill the literature on the history of this policy. On the other hand, coercive policies have also led to under reporting of births, especially of girls who were abandoned, since party officials also preferred to save their face by hiding real numbers. Floating population also caused difficulties in accurate calculations.
b) Gender Imbalance: Permission for second child for couples having first daughters in addition to the legal sex determination tests led to skewed sex ratios at birth. It has continued to be skewed even after this test became illegal. As a consequence, many Chinese men are unable to find brides and they tend to scout out to Southeast Asia in search of commitment.
c) Lack of Multidimensional Approach: Other ills of this policy are tied to the problems of social inequality facing China. For example, there was a lot of criticism when cities like Shanghai silently allowed the couples who had grown as single children to have two children in the name of population stabilization while at the same time keeping the migrant labour out of the benefits of city registrations.
d) Long-term Consequences: Whether the individualization of Chinese society is good or bad is another hot debate amongst the academics studying China. Over the long term, it has also led to violent tendencies amongst those who have grown up as a single child of affluent parents and find themselves unable to make social adjustments.
Future of the Policy
Undoubtedly, one-child policy is the biggest social engineering process ever undertaken in the world. It has had its benefits but its shortfalls have also been too many. Even if the government now desires to balance the population structure by bringing in more relaxations to the policy, public response may be lukewarm. First, rising costs of living, education and healthcare might prevent urban couples from having more children as many find it difficult to sustain their own lifestyles as such. In addition, alterations to this policy may not happen too soon and it may never happen the way this policy began in the first place; third, the Chinese government has other problems that demand urgent attention and are being prioritized and lastly, today the state-society relations in China are nowhere close to what they were in the late 1970s.
Research Assistant, IDSA