Karl Marx once described Thomas Malthus, the famed English demographer, as a “lackey of the bourgeoisie”. A similar verdict almost sealed the fate of Ma Yinchu, a Yale-educated Chinese economist who was a strong advocate of birth control in the 1950s. Ma was ousted as president of Peking University because his New Population Theory was deemed “too Malthusian” and thus contrary to China’s Marxist path.
By 1969 the Chinese population already exceeded 800 million at a time when demographers were starting to warn of a “population bomb” at the global level. Such was the concern about how the world’s resources would support high birth rates that the United Nations even declared 1974 as ‘World Population Year’, holding a major conference to discuss the implications of rapid population growth.
Mao Zedong’s China viewed manpower as more of an asset than a liability. Accordingly it was one of the nations that resisted UN proposals to curb birth rates, finding an unlikely ally in the Vatican.
It was not until 1979 – when China began to embrace more liberal economic reforms – that the government started to introduce more stringent family planning policies of its own. Ma Yinchu’s time had come and his theories would form the basis of the country’s new approach, which included the One-Child Policy.
In the following decades these controls were heavily criticised – more openly from overseas sources – for their cruel implementation and human rights implications. But eight years ago China changed tack, recognising that the former priority of limiting the population size had come with malign consequences (such as a worrying gender imbalance and a rapidly aging society).
A policy that had been designed to protect the Chinese economy was now threatening its future prospects and the government went even further this week with an unexpected announcement that families are now permitted to have three children.
What was announced?
The policy shift followed a meeting of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on Monday.
“China will support couples who wish to have a third child,” a post-meeting statement announced rather blandly, adding that the new direction will help to improve the country’s population structure and preserve its “human resource advantages”. The meeting was chaired by President Xi Jinping and heard discussion of “major policy measures to address the aging of the population” during the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) period, Xinhua reported.
The One-Child Policy itself was not meant to last forever. Starting in 2013, the government had already started to phase out some of the restrictions, allowing some couples to have a second child. In 2016 the policy was officially replaced with new rules that allowed all couples to have two children.
By then China’s fertility rate had fallen to about 1.3, down from 5.8 in the 1950s. The One-Child Policy accelerated a more natural decline in the birth rate, forcing the fertility rate below the replacement level of 2.1. More than three decades of limiting new births had, however, triggered a rapid aging of the population. This has concerned China’s economic planners in recent years.
Has the Second-Child Policy worked?
Huang Wenzheng, a senior fellow at the Centre for China and Globalisation, told state broadcaster CCTV that if birth rates continue to fall unchecked, the next generation will have 40% fewer people than the previous one. Similar fears prompted policymakers to drop the longstanding restrictions in 2016, allowing couples to have two children. One-child families still of child-bearing age that wanted another kid were finally able to have one. The number of births rose by nearly 1.3 million in 2016 to 17.86 million. But births have fallen for four years in a row since then, suggesting 2016 was a blip. Indeed, if the Second-Child Policy effect was excluded from the data, China’s fertility rate might have fallen to 1.1 (and even lower in major cities like Shanghai), the Global Times suggested this week. At current rates India will surpass China as the world’s most populous country by 2024, it added.
Why not abolish the birth limit altogether and let people have as many children as they like?
One problem is that removing all population controls may be seen as an unconstitutional act – at least for the time being. Family planning diktats – known in China as shengyu (which translates literally as ‘birth and raising’) – were written into the Chinese constitution in 1982. Since 2016 there have been calls to amend the clauses on family planning. But such a fundamental shift in what has been one of the most controversial and far-reaching policies for several generations of Chinese treads on sensitive ground. By keeping a loose ceiling in place – a maximum of three children – policymakers have bought themselves more time to plan for the future and created a potential buffer in case they decide that population growth needs to be brought under control again in the future.
What did the latest census say about the birth rate?
China’s once-in-a-decade national census was concluded in December last year. Relying on more than seven million data collectors, the survey is the world’s largest of its sort. The results were scheduled to be made public in mid-April but they were delayed for nearly a month due to the need for “more preparation work”.
The hold-up stoked speculation, with the Financial Times reporting that China was set to admit its first population decline since the early 1960s, when tens of millions are believed to have starved to death in the disastrous Great Leap Forward.
Underlying the sensitivity of the data, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) refuted the FT report with a short statement that China’s population kept growing in 2020. The results of the census were then finally announced a few days later, showing that the population reached 1.41178 billion by the end of 2020. Ning Jizhe, the head of the NBS, said the total number will stay above 1.4 billion “for a certain period in the future”. Yet while the official numbers did not show a fall, Ning conceded that population growth had slowed to 0.53% a year (on average) in the last decade (from 0.57% between 2000 to 2010).
Worryingly, the working-age population, or people aged between 16 and 59, had decreased by more than 40 million since 2010. However, Ning emphasised that the total pool, at 880 million, was still large and that “dividends in demographics still exist” to support the Chinese economy.
“As the quality of the population improves, the demographic dividend will gradually turn into a talent dividend, and the advantages of population resources will be effectively brought into play,” he insisted.
Despite the positive spin, a country that tips into lower fertility levels is unlikely to recover once the total fertility rate slips below 1.5, which means the population will soon start to decline. According to the Global Times, only “strong policy intervention” can prevent this from happening in China.
Of course, the announcement of the Third-Child Policy came only two weeks after the results of the 2020 census were published. It’s unlikely that the timing was coincidental, signalling policymakers’ worries about the politics of population decline.
How has the public responded to this week’s announcement?
The new policy was greeted with widespread ridicule online, rendering it one of the most mocked major announcements from the CPC in recent memory. When Xinhua followed up on the breaking news by posting a poll on its social media account, just 5% of respondents said they would consider having three kids. More than 30,000 of those who took part clicked “not interested at all” before the survey was quickly deleted from the internet.
Within hours Xinhua’s official weibo account was flooded with more than 160,000 comments from netizens – the bulk of which were predominantly negative.“Why are we post-nineties [born after 1990] so unlucky? We were born as a result of planned shengyu. We need to work the 996 culture [from 9am to 9pm for six days a week; see WiC449 for more on this topic]. We need to take care of three kids and four elderly [a married couple’s two sets of parents]. Possibly we’ll die of overwork before 65,” complained one widely-liked comment.
“You’ll need to take care of nine grandchildren if you don’t die by 65,” another posted. Other memes on the same topic were soon doing the rounds. One photo featured the famous film director Zhang Yimou with his hand raised in an angry posture, and carried the caption: “Refund the Rmb7.48 million penalty to me” (Zhang was fined the equivalent of $1.17 million a few years ago for breaching the One-Child Policy, see WiC222).
During the One-Child Policy era many Chinese would trudge past huge banners at the entrances to their residential compounds urging obedience to the directive. One of the most controversial warned rural folk that their entire village would be sterilised if anyone violated the birth restrictions. This week it was lampooned online in a doctored photo. “The entire village will receive artificial insemination if anyone refuses to give more births,” the ‘updated’ slogan read.
So the Chinese do not want more children?
Another popular spoof turned the tables on the news release regarding the Politburo’s decision by demanding that CPC officials take the lead in having more children.
“In encouraging childbirth, Party members and cadres cannot be absent!” it mocked. “Right now, as the state of our aging population is at its most critical point, the task of promoting and encouraging birth and economic and social development is arduous, and we most need to fully bring into play the pioneering model role of Party members and cadres, letting the flag of the Party fly high on the front lines of the struggle.”
The disconnect between the goals of the new policy and the public mood has been striking. Another contributor on weibo highlighted his frustration that Party apparatchiks were pushing the public to have more children without doing enough to address the reasons why the birth rate had fallen – i.e. because of the rising costs of raising a family, or changes in work and lifestyle that have made family life less appealing.
“In my hometown, if a pig does not birth piglets, the pig farmers always go and look at what exactly the problem is,” he wrote. “Has the drop in vigour resulted from the fact that the enclosure isn’t big enough, the hygiene conditions are poor, or that the pig is under too much pressure? Once the problem is found it can be solved, and naturally the pig will have piglets. You can’t just send down an edict and expect a pig to give birth.”
That’s also why state media has been keen to emphasise that the latest chapter in family planning policy is not just about sheng (birth) but will also focus on yu (raising).
The relaxation of restrictions will come with supportive measures, Xinhua promised, including improved maternity leave and workplace protection for pregnant women. Policymakers will develop a universal childcare system and help with spending on education. Tax cuts and housing subsidies are on the agenda for three-child families too.
That did little to mollify another netizen, who regarded the new policy as only relevant for the affluent. “The three kids of a rich man will become an entrepreneur, a senior official and a scientist; the three kids of a poor guy will become a Meituan rider, a factory worker and a security guard,” he warned.
Population policy will also have to contend with deeper shifts in society, such as people marrying later in life and the larger numbers of women who prioritise careers over offspring. A further social aspect also came up in a much-discussed weibo post which complained that Chinese men don’t do enough to help at home, making starting a family even less enticing. “It’s not like we don’t want to have kids, and there’s no laws forbidding us from doing that. But as soon as we have kids, our life falls apart. That’s why women don’t want to be mothers,” the contributor explained.
Hopes of an uptick in the birth rate also run counter to other trends that have struck a chord with younger people, such as the concept of tangping. Translating as ‘lay down’ or ‘lay flat’, tangping denotes a lifestyle in which people stop striving for a more prosperous future and give up on trying to meet the expectations of mainstream society. Instead they ‘lie down’ and keep their consumption at minimal levels, refuse to buy a property, and decide not to marry or have kids.
Talk of tangping started with a post on a Baidu discussion forum in which the unemployed author said that he felt perfectly fine and would no longer pursue the accepted ideas of success. He had decided to simply tangping instead.
The post was deleted after it mushroomed on social media but the term has captured the imagination of young Chinese – so much so that all the major news outlets have given it extensive coverage.
The tangping movement does not bode well for the Three-Child Policy. It, and other factors, suggest Monday’s dramatic policy shift may prove ‘too little, too late’ when it comes to altering China’s demographic destiny.
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