Talking Point

The ‘Little Emperor’ dynasty

The one-child policy remains in force, a generation on

The tantrum from Tianjin: China's one-child generation are known as 'Little Emperors'

It costs a little over $200,000 to give a child a middle-income upbringing in the US, according to figures released last year by the US government. Parents in the UK will need to find an additional $75,000 for the same task, the Daycare Trust reported in January. Having more children adds to the cost of parenting. But in China there is an added twist: you get fined for each additional child.

Chinese parents – who are subject to the 30 year-old one-child policy – now face increased fines for having ‘unauthorised’ children, according to a recent report in the China Daily.

Why are the newspapers discussing fines now?

Actually, to be precise: they are referred to as “social maintenance fees” rather than fines.

But a penalty is imposed when a family has more than its permitted number of children. The amount charged varies across different localities but is normally a multiple of the local average income.

A rule-breaker in Beijing would be required to pay Rmb24,725 ($3,600), for the additional child.

The problem is that the penalties have not kept pace with the general increase in urban incomes. In particular, they are of little financial consequence to China’s wealthier elite; “The public does not like the fact that the rich or famous can get away with breaking the family planning policy just by paying the fine, which is well within their means,” recognises Deng Xingzhou, head of Beijing’s Family Planning Commission. He says the city of Beijing is drafting new means to calculate penalties in a “correct” fashion and that violators will be subject to increased fines this year.

The timing is no coincidence. With China going through a slowdown, the government is alive to any threat to ‘social harmony’. Social justice is hardly served when the masses can see that (in practical terms) there is one rule for the rich and another for them. This is particularly contentious in a society that holds the family as sacrosanct.

But has the one-child policy worked?

The country’s average birth rate is actually closer to two children per family than one.

But China’s national fertility rate (1.8 children for each woman of child-bearing age) also reflects how the headline policy is applied across the country.

The country’s 125 million population of ethnic minorities are allowed to raise more children, for example, even up to as many as four in some rural areas. Rural families generally are usually allowed to have a second child if their first is a girl and some cities permit parents who have no siblings themselves to have two children together. The restrictions are also relaxed for any Chinese nationals who work overseas; and for Chinese nationals married to foreigners.

In reality, the strictest provisions apply to approximately a third of the population, mostly living in China’s cities. As a general rule this means that most rural families have two children, while most urban families have one.

But the policy has been a success in slowing down population growth?

The government certainly thinks so. It claims that there would be up to 300 million more people in China today without it.

The fear in the 1970s was that overpopulation would shackle the country in perpetual poverty. A target population of 1.2 billion was identified for the end of the century and, according to 2000 census data, came in only 70 million above budget.

Experts point out that the birth rate was already falling before the full one child policy was introduced in 1979. Efforts earlier in the decade, like the ‘one is good, two is okay and three is too many’ campaign, were already having an impact. By 1980 the average birth rate was close to 3 (and down from 5 just ten years earlier).

Any plans afoot to change the family planning policy?

There was speculation last year that the policy might be modified. But the government reiterated it would remain in place in March last year.

Its reasoning was that 200 million people will be reaching childbearing age over the next decade and that prematurely abandoning existing controls risked a major uptick in the birth rate.

Do the Chinese want to have more children?

The most comprehensive survey – released by the National Family Planning Commission in January – found that 70.7% women would like to have two or more children. Most women, or 83%, want a son and a daughter, the survey said.

“Some mothers think only-children suffer from loneliness and can become spoiled,” says Jiang Fan, vice-minister of the National Family Planning Commission. It is no accident that children of the one-child policy are nicknamed ‘Little Emperors’.

But the picture is clearest, says the International Herald Leader, if you look at the extremes of Chinese society, as it is amongst the lowest income families and the top earners that the demand for more children is greatest. Poorer parents have traditionally relied upon their children to care for them in old age – so more children are equated with greater security. Financial security is also the issue for the wealthy; they already have it, so they want to have more children too.

But does the country need more children?

Despite its vast population – and the associated benefits in labour costs that have supported the country’s rapid economic growth – China is actually facing a new set of demographic challenges.

The population is ageing and one leading concern is the “421” problem, or that every child will have to care for two parents and four grandparents in the coming years.

Policy-makers worry that the diminishing network of familial siblings will lead to many of China’s elderly facing their final years in financial and psychological isolation. Of course, this means an additional financial burden for the government too.

Another fear is that China’s gender ratio (there are as many as 119 males born for every 100 females, versus a global average of about 105:100) will lead to societal imbalances. Experts predict that by 2020 as many as 30 million Chinese men will be unable to find wives.


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