On the morning of July 23, He Shenguo, a 33 year-old villager from China’s southern Guangxi province, walked into his local family planning bureau and began stabbing those inside.
The frenzied attack left two officials dead. Three others and a bystander were injured.
Media outlets such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily reported the event but they failed to include one detail – the attacker had targeted the bureau because of a disagreement over how many children he was allowed to have.
Most couples in China are limited to one child, unless they belong to an ethnic minority. But He and his wife had four children and two days before the attack he had attempted to register his fourth – a girl – at the bureau.
Registering a child is an essential step on its path to citizenship and failure to do so means no access to education or medical services in future.
It is not known why He resorted to violence but it is widely assumed that he could not afford the so-called “social compensation” fees he was asked to pay (i.e. fines), which are designed to be punitive and increase with each new child.
As these details leaked out through more independent news outlets it became clearer why the authorities had decided to skip over the attacker’s background.
Rather than condemn his actions, many blamed China’s family planning commission for the attack.
“Is it fair that you can only have more children if you have money? Poor people are only left with the option to kill people. The guilt for this act is the Family Planning Commission’s!” wrote one user on China’s popular microblogging service Sina Weibo.
“Stand in silent tribute for those who died!” wrote another, before adding: “I mean all those babies killed by the Family Planning Commission!”
Until earlier this year, the commission employed more than half a million people and was a powerful independent bureaucracy.
In March, it was rolled into the Health Ministry in an attempted rebranding after a spate of high-profile stories involving abuses such as forced late-term abortions.
But the merger has done little to stem a rising tide of opinion against the policies it upholds— especially, when in many cases, it seems that restrictions apply only to those who don’t have the money or the connections to secure an exemption (see WiC155 and 193).
Last year researchers at one of the government’s think-tanks, the Development Research Foundation, called for a phasing out of the restrictions in order that all couples might be able to have two children by 2015.
Then in January Ma Jiantang, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, said the tight controls on births were behind the dwindling labour force.
So when an official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission dropped a heavy hint last week that the policy might be reformed soon, people began to get excited.
“Family planning policy should not only consider maintaining the country’s low birth rate, but also consider the wishes of the masses, economic and social development and demographic changes,” said Mao Qun’an, a spokesman for the commission.
“Therefore considering the current situation and long-term goals, the commission is organising research on the size, quality, structure and distribution of the population so that we can propose plans to improve the policy,” he added.
Observers say that if the government is serious about reform the changes may be trailed in October when the ruling Communist Party holds its top meeting in Beijing. Another window for an announcement could be the ‘Two Sessions’ meeting of the legislature in March.
The move would be a popular one and mark out China’s new leadership team as capable of taking bold decisions. Previous leaders have not had the confidence to ease the decades-old restrictions.
The most likely reform is an extension of the system that already allows some couples to have two children. At the moment a couple can do this if they are both the product of single-child families. Under the rumoured new rules, a family could have two children if just one of the parents had no siblings.
Such a change might result in a few million additional births a year, but they won’t fix China’s pending demographic problems. These children would be at least 16 years away from joining the labour force and their number would not be enough to counter the overall trend of an aging population.
“Moving to a two-child policy will only delay the peak in China’s population from 2019 to 2025, before it goes into long-term decline,” an analyst told the South China Morning Post.
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