By Tabu Agarwal:
After decades of strict enforcement, China has finally scrapped its controversial one- child policy. In a move that can have huge implications globally, China recently announced that it will allow all married couples to have two children. In the wake of realisation that the policy is leaving the country with an ageing population and shrinking workforce, the move comes as an encouraging step towards greater personal freedom in China. China’s working-age population fell in 2012 and there was the realisation that it could be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich.
The controversial one-child policy, which came into effect in 1980 restricted most couples to only a single offspring and after its implementation authorities argued that it was a key contributor to China’s economic success. The policy was initially successful in its implementation with prevention of 400 million births. However, it met with a backlash and was criticized as being overtly harsh and even inhumane. Couples who violated the one-child policy faced many punishments, from forced abortions to harassment to fines and loss of employment. In late 2013, there was a reform when the Chinese government announced that couples in which one parent is an only child were allowed to have a second child. The impact was however baffling, with only 1.6 million couples, out of the 11 million who were eligible, applying to have a second child by July this year.
The decision to abandon the policy will be welcomed by many ordinary Chinese as it had led to a plethora of issues that plagued the country. Because of many couples’ preference to have a boy rather than a girl, if limited to one child, it was common for them to sex-select for boys and abort their girl child. The gender disparity is stark with China now having 117 men for every 100 women, and also by 2020, China is expected to have 30 million more men than women. However, in rural areas, the one-child policy wasn’t strictly enforced, as couples were allowed to have two children if the first was a girl. Additionally, supporting retirees is another issue, as China’s cohort of workers is getting old. By 2050, 25% of China’s population will be over the age of 65, while the number of young people who can support the retiree lot will have shrunk. China, which is already in the grip of lower economic growth, further faces a pressure due to the greying lot, as retirees are not as voracious consumers as young people. This has come at a time when Chinese leaders are already facing other downward pressure on economic growth as the country is trying to move away from export-dependent factory jobs and heavy investment in infrastructure projects such as airports and roads.
The policy was also accused of creating a generation of selfish “little emperors” spoiled by their parents and grandparents. Due to degrading treatment by the government officials in case couples opted to have more than one child, there was also a decline in the number of Chinese children adopted by Americans and other foreigners, who didn’t want to be part of such coercive treatment.
However, taking into account all these problems, an end to the one-child policy is definitely a pleasant change in China’s dwindling economy. Having said that, it is not a catch-all solution to China’s economic strain. China should focus on improving the productivity of its labourers and on improving efficiency by allowing markets to play a greater role in its economy. Reforms to the legal system could also foster economic growth. The government should find ways to give older people opportunities to work and raise the retirement limits incrementally for both men and women. Chinese couples will still have their reproductive rights circumscribed by the state, because they will still need to apply for a permit before having a child. In short, the state will still play an invasive role in families’ intimate affairs. The latest ruling notwithstanding is here to stay and will become a major factor in determining China’s future.