Society, Talking Point

Go forth and multiply

How did Chinese citizens react to the end of the One-Child Policy?

Chinese family

Time for two? China will relax its ban on families having more than one child next year

When the ruling Communist Party first announced the One-Child Policy 35 years ago it did so with an open letter in the People’s Daily.

But when it signalled the policy’s demise last Thursday, the news was buried in the 21st paragraph of a 22-point report by the state news agency Xinhua on the 18th Congress’s Fifth Plenum.

The sentence, which was less than two lines long in Chinese, said that “in order to respond to an aging population and to improve demographic strategy, the right to have a second child will be extended to all”.

It was a strangely understated end to a policy which has been labelled as one of the most radical social experiments in recent history.

How did people react to the news?

Within minutes of the announcement on Thursday evening, the changes to the rules had become the hottest topic on social media, with tens of millions of views.

Interestingly, though, few of the comments were wholly positive, despite the widespread feeling that people should be allowed to have two children.

The first category of naysayers was a small minority who believe that China, because of its large population and limited resources, should leave the One-Child Policy unchanged.

They questioned whether the country’s medical systems and social services are capable of dealing with a population boom, and they also wondered whether the environment could take the strain of a surge in new births.

“We introduced the policy for good reason and China has been able to develop because of it. We should not abandon it now,” wrote one netizen. “I see more polluted rivers and skies. China can’t take more people,” wrote another.

The second much larger group of respondents approved of the changes to the rules but was angry at the way they had been decided and announced – i.e. in a similar style to the introduction of the original policy 35 years ago.

“What is wrong with our government? When people wanted more children they banned it. Now when people don’t want more children they tell us to have more. Why does the government always fight against the people in this way,” one netizen fumed.

“How is it our lives can be changed in the most fundamental way just by decree?” asked another.

Others were irritated that the change had come so late (particularly if they had paid fines for having a second child), while others felt aggrieved that the shift had come without an apology for the harm and hurt caused.

“I still remember how after the birth of my first child family planning officials dragged me off like a criminal to get my tubes tied. Now, only when I am too old, they make it legal to have a second child. I am so sad,” wrote one woman.

Some women also said they were upset that the decision was made by men. “How come such an important policy was decided by a group of men behind closed doors? Only 32 of the 376 current Central Committee members are female, why should this 91%-male body decide the fertility rights of a country made up of 600 million women?” asked another.

“There is no doubt that this new population plan is patriarchal… When society needed to control the population to stimulate economic growth, countless women were forcibly sterilised and countless baby girls were abandoned and even murdered.  However, when the society needs a larger number of children to solve the problem of an aging population, women are being asked to open their uterus and sacrifice their small families for the big country,” an article on the feminist website Groundbreaking said.

There were a few jokes too…

China’s internet community rarely lacks humour and it was in evidence yet again after the announcement. Some created spoofs of old One-Child Policy propaganda posters but reversed the message to suggest the government was now forcing women to have two children.

“Reward second child, fine for one child. Refusal to have a baby, you will be arrested,” ran one doctored poster.

“Refusal to have a second child and the whole village will be artificially inseminated,” said another, reversing the sinister old slogan: “One family to have excess child, whole village to be sterilised”.

One of the most widely forwarded jokes involved a husband asking his wife if she wanted to try for a second child. “I’ve had enough of taking care of the baby so I don’t fancy another one,” she replied. “If you want a second child you have to find somebody else to have it with.”

The husband couldn’t believe his ears: “In a single day, both the government and my wife have relaxed their policies on me having another child. The good luck came all too suddenly!”

Another popular comment forwarded by middle-aged men: “It doesn’t help to allow us to have a second child. It would help to allow me to have a second wife, though.”

Why change the policy now?

The rules don’t change until March of next year when the National People’s Congress ratifies the new law.

This is something that the National Health and Family Planning Commission had to clarify this week after a provincial leader in Wuhan suggested that families about to have a (currently forbidden) second child would not be punished.

But as to why the Party wants to end the policy, there are two main reasons – one simple, and one more nuanced.

As stated in the communiqué issued via Xinhua, the Party is worried about demographics. China’s population is aging fast and fertility levels are lower than the replacement level of 2.1, despite some tweaking of family planning rules in recent years to encourage more births. The fear is that China will grow old before it grows rich and it will never escape the so-called ‘middle income trap’.

But there is another reason for the change in policy: the Party’s concern that the right people aren’t having enough children.

Until November 2013 the One- Child Policy dictated that rural families that had a girl could opt to have a second child in hope of having a boy – the logic being that more boys would be needed for farm work.

This meant that population growth was stronger in the less affluent, less well-educated parts of society.

More recently the policy was modified to allow couples in which at least one came from a single-child background to have two kids. This was meant to get urban, middle class couples to have larger families and – in the words of Chinese officials – “to lift the quality” of society.

That change, mind you, didn’t seem to be having much impact, with far fewer qualifying families applying to have a second child than policymakers expected. So last week the rules were changed in a more radical way.

“China’s population policy adjustment will have a huge impact on the country’s social and economic future – not only in terms of population growth but also in terms of improving the quality of the population,” Yi Xianrong, a researcher at the Institute of Finance at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote on this week.

Zhen Jian from the website Groundbreaking put it more bluntly: “ ‘The Two-Child Policy’ is intended to spur the urban middle class into reproduction. They might be the minority but they are considered the key to producing large numbers of high quality children who can give our society the competitive edge. Those of ‘low quality’ or ‘rural grassroots’ are not the target of this policy, because most of them could already have a second child.”

The commercial impact?

Theoretically about 90 million families could now have a second child. Were they to do so, the 90 million new children would generate a lot of commercial activity. One of the first businessmen to express his gratitude to the government was Disney boss, Bob Iger. “Thanks for sending us more kids,” he joked at an event last week, adding that he planned to write a thank you letter to the Beijing leadership (Disney is opening a new theme park in Shanghai, so the more children, the better).

Of course, it’s not clear how many new births will result from the change of policy. But James Liang, an economics professor with Peking University, predicts that the annual increase could be 2.4 million. “If Rmb30,000 is spent on a baby annually, new consumption worth Rmb75 billion ($11.8 billion) will be created,” he told Xinhua.

Xinhua added that the shares of baby-related companies in Shanghai and Shenzhen all surged by their 10% limit-up maximum the day after the announcement. Overseas companies benefited too, said CNN – such as Mead Johnson Nutrition, which makes the baby formula Enfamil. It reports a third of its sales already in China, and its stock rose 4% last Thursday on expectations that revenues will grow further.

Stocks listed in Hong Kong also got a boost, such as the pram manufacturer Goodbaby International (up 6.3% the day after the policy change). China Child Care Corp, which makes hair and skincare products for children, was another major beneficiary. According to Fortune, its investors were one of the biggest winners, with its stock surging 33% in a single trading session.

There were a few obvious losers too, most notably condom makers. Japan’s Okamoto Industries saw its stock droop 5%, for example.

So problems solved?

Plenty of commentators pointed out that China’s workforce won’t see the benefits of a baby boom for years. Extra children born due to the end of the policy won’t enter the labour force until well into the 2030s, when China’s demographic profile looks quite likely to resemble that of Japan fifteen years ago, with people older than 65 accounting for 18% of the population.

Other commentators reflected more on the social impact of the family planning regime, like Beijing-based marketing executive Liu Haining, who wrote a piece in the Financial Times this week describing her own experience as a single child.

She admitted there had been advantages (“I never had to share food or my favourite toys and I had unconditional access to all of my parents’ slender resources”) but she also pointed out that she and her sibling-less peers face considerable disadvantages too.

“There is the stress that comes from being your family’s one-and-only hope; the constant pressure to outdo your peers; the loneliness that comes from making your way in the world alone.

“As a group, we have been given many labels, mostly negative: the little emperors, the little suns. But if a childhood without siblings is one of undivided affection, the payback is an adulthood of undivided cares. A typical Chinese couple can now expect to be supporting four elderly parents, none of whom has anywhere else to turn. It remains to be seen how many of these couples will warm to the prospect of being responsible for a second child as well.”

Liu makes a valid point. The cost of raising a child in China today, particularly in the cities, is considerable. Aside from obvious items like food and clothing, parents can spend a small fortune on educational activities such as tutoring, which are often deemed essential if you want to get your offspring into good schools and universities. Hence Liu says that one friend – who has a daughter – said that she might consider another child “but only if she and her husband could make enough money to afford the rising cost”.

Such financial considerations may limit the impact of the policy changes, with demographers warning that China could experience the same situation as other East Asian countries, which have seen their birth rates plunge despite campaigns to promote fertility.

In South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, birthrates are near one per woman, for instance, or roughly half the rate needed to sustain the current population.

And even assuming that a lot of middle class families do have a second child – boosting the economy and improving China’s demographic profile – one thing that won’t be remedied is one of the worst legacies of the One-Child Policy.

As we discussed last week, Chinese academics have long warned that the preference for boys has led to a dangerous gender imbalance in which there are now many more men in China than women (when urban couples knew they were going to have a girl, they sometimes terminated the pregnancy, hoping to have a son next time round).

The outcome is that by 2020 China is predicted to have 30 million men who will be unable to find a wife. These so-called guanggun or ‘bare branches’ could become a disruptive force in Chinese society because of their frustration with their lot.

Their anger is likely to be compounded by the fact that the men who are least able to find a spouse will probably be from poor or badly-educated backgrounds.

This group will take little comfort from last week’s announcement: for most of them the sad reality is that they are condemned to a zero-child policy for the rest of their lives.

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