The technocrats in charge of China’s one-child policy have the power to force sterilizations, abortions, and intra-uterine device (IUD) implants, as well as punish uncooperative parents by denying them jobs, denying their children schooling, and slapping them with fines.
So when the National People’s Congress last December liberalized the policy—thus giving most of the country’s families permission to have up to two children for the first time in 35 years—it seemed the hearts of the technocrats were finally softening. And it was widely assumed that many parents previously restricted to one child would jump at the chance to have a second.
But now, as the adjustments take full effect and the nation’s dandu—the Mandarin word meaning “family in which either parent is an only child”—exercise their newly acquired freedom of choice, unexpected challenges to the government’s family-control policies are starting to emerge.
For example, parents in many parts of the country did not react to the policy change by bearing more children, at least not immediately. Parents in Zhejiang Province, for example, filed only 27,549 applications for a second child between mid-January when the local government adjusted the birth control policy and March 31—far below expectations. Experts had predicted the liberalization would increase province-wide births to about 800,000 annually, yielding a rate of 1.8 births per 1,000 people in Zhejiang compared to the 2010 birth rate of 1.02.
Moreover, some parents who recently had a second child are locking horns with the local governments who subsequently hit them with fines. Their children were born after the national congress decision but, some local authorities argue, were illegal because they arrived weeks before the changes were implemented at the local level.
Dissatisfied families, single mothers, and their supporters in recent months have been contesting local enforcers by filing petitions, appealing fines, and requesting more information from government agencies. Some have even filed lawsuits.
Authorities have been targeted by single mothers whose children have been denied legal rights because their unwed parents are not allowed a birth certificate for their child. They’re also under pressure from legal rights activists who want the government to lift all birth-control and residency rules affecting a child’s education options. And some parents whose only child died, leaving them without family support in old age, are demanding government compensation.
Some experts say the government’s gradual approach to family policy changes is at the root of these controversies. “The pace is still too slow,” said Yi Fuxian, a population expert at the University of Wisconsin. He thinks Chinese policymakers should “vigorously reverse their direction” by fully relaxing birth controls and stop “taking take their sweet time.”
The National People’s Congress ordered all provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities to revise their population and birth-control rules and procedures. But local governments were allowed to respond at their own speed.
Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Anhui provinces moved quickly, putting new policies on the books within a month. The municipalities of Beijing and Tianjin followed suit in February. The most recent adjustments were reported in Shandong and Henan provinces, which adopted new policies in May, leaving only the Tibet and Xinjiang regions still preparing local versions of the new policy.
What some called foot-dragging by local authorities upset families that think the entire country should have quickly fallen in line with congress’ decision. Especially unhappy are those who would have more child-bearing options if their local government had followed Beijing’s orders.
Provinces with large populations, such as Sichuan province (population 80 million) have been among the slowest to change. Many have retained certain restrictions that arguably undercut the spirit of the central government’s policy change. Some experts say authorities in these areas fear a spike in population growth will hurt their ability to govern.
Expectant mothers in some areas wrote letters to local government officials pleading for changes before their babies arrived. And according to official figure, some 2,750 parents signed a petition nationwide asking that the government give their children legal status, since they were born before a local policy was revised but after the congressional decision.
Most local governments, however, have firmly declared that a second child can only be declared legal if he or she is born after the local policy takes effect, or after the family pays a fine.
One couple in the Zhejiang city of Taizhou had their second child December 28—the same day congress approved the changes. But because the provincial government didn’t enact a local version of the policy adjustment until January 17, the couple was fined 200,000 yuan.
Moreover, policies can vary from one locale to the next. Anhui provincial officials, for example, put in place a system that lets parents avoid fines for babies born between last November and January 23, when the local birth policy took effect.
Low Birth Rates
Under the policy adjustment, up to 20 million parents are eligible for a second child. Up to 60 percent of the respondents to a recent family-planning commission survey said they’d like to have a second child.
Huo Zhenwu, a professor of demography at Renmin University’s School of Society and Population, predicted China’s birth rate would jump as high as 1.8 babies per mother, raising annual births to more than 19 million. But that was a low-ball figure compared to the birth rate of 2.4—which would mean more than 25 million births annually—predicted by Cai Fang, Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Population and Labor Economy.
What’s happened so far has “thrown cold water” on these and other expert conclusions, said Wisconsin’s Yi, who has studied recent data from across the country. All local family planning authorities continue to control the pace of allowance of second children by dandu families through an application and approval process. They are also mounting propaganda campaigns to dissuade couples of child-bearing age to avoid a baby boom.
As in Zhejiang, lower-than-expected birth rates so far this year in Sichuan have proven forecasters wrong. Some experts predicted Sichuan would see the rate rise to 1.43 from 1.33 after the one-child policy was relaxed. But that hasn’t happened—at least not yet—because officials have approved in the policy’s first month only 5,530 second-child requests from among some 28,464 parent-applicants.
The average birth rate for three northeastern provinces—Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang—has yet to rise from its low level of 0.75. Only 545 couples in the cities of Shenyang and 112 in Harbin were given permission to have second children within the first month after the local policy was enacted.
Yi considers the first months for the new policy a “blowout period” during which parents anxious for a second child rush to apply for permission to have a second child. Gradually, he said, this surge in interest will die down.
Some couples approved for a second child may delay the birth or change their minds. And some may be physically unable to conceive. Most mothers who have applied for a second child in recent months were over 30 years old, according to Yi.
Mu Guangzong, a professor of demography at Peking University’s Population Institute, says many government experts in the past overestimated “the people’s motivation and resolve to have children.”
“What we need to fear is not a baby boom threat but rather continued restrictions and low birth rates,” Mu said.
Demographic trends underscore the seriousness of Mu’s observation. China’s national fertility rate, or the average number of newborns per woman in her child-bearing years, hit an all-time low of 1.04 in 2011, according to the National Health and Family Planning Commission. That’s below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 needed to maintain the country’s current population.
The working-age population fell in 2012 for the first time, down 3.45 million from the previous year, said the family planning commission, which added that in 2023 the number of employable Chinese will start falling by about 8 million annually. Meanwhile, the segment of the population over age 60 is growing. It was 200 million in 2013, and that will double by the mid-2030s.
The issues of birth control and the rising ranks of senior citizens have converged in debates over who will care for elderly people whose only son or daughter died young. In some cases, these debates have prompted demands that the government compensate seniors who adhered to the one-child policy, lost their child, and now need help.
In another group demanding attention are couples who were forced to become childless by the technocrats running the one-child policy, which says “contraception is the primary means of implementing birth planning.” Contraception and sterilization are government services provided free of charge to rural families of child-rearing age, and technically takers are not forced.
Caixin investigations of local government policies in Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Shandong, Guangdong, Guizhou, Tibet, and Shanxi found that in each area every couple is expected to practice contraception before getting a birth planning certificate which is usually linked to their career. In some regions, a couple can’t get a birth certificate for a newborn unless the mother has had an IUD implant, undergoes sterilization, or pays a fine. These certificates are like tickets every Chinese person needs to get an education and a job. At least 14 regions require migrant workers from other parts of the country to show a birth planning certificate before getting a job, according to a Caixin survey of government records.
Couples that fail to follow the rules can face steep fines. Since 2002, when the central government devised a fee schedule for family-planning rule violations, fines have ranged from 200 yuan to 300,000 yuan. And in some regions, governments reward or punish family-planning agency employees based on sterilization numbers.
Laws in 16 provinces, including Hebei, Liaoning, Zhejiang, and Anhui, say anyone employed by a state company or government agency can be fired for violating a family planning policy. A prominent case of such a firing occurred in 2010, when Yang Zhizhu lost his job as an associate professor at China Youth University for Political Sciences for having a second child.
Calls for Leniency
A lawsuit filed by a 39-year-old single mother on June 10 in Guangdong highlights the frustration many parents have felt when dealing with local authorities who enforce the one-child policy.
The mother sued a branch of the city of Dongguan’s Public Security Bureau after exhausting all other means of reasonably obtaining legal status for her only child, who is now five. Permission was denied because she and the father were not married. It’s illegal for a single woman to have a child in Guangdong—as well as in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Liaoning, Shandong, and Qinghai.
The only way the mother can get legal status for her child would be if she pays a fine of at least 100,000 yuan, accepts an IUD implant, and presents a marriage certificate. She’s suing the public security bureau for not granting a household registration to the child.
“This is my only child,” she said. “Legal registration is his natural right.”
Parents around the country have vented similar anger in recent months and, with the help of lawyers, are taking legal steps to pressure family planning authorities.
A single mother in Beijing’s Fangshan District filed suit to contest a rule that says a child can’t get legal status unless a violating parent pays a fine.
A petition filed in the city of Ruijin, Jiangxi Province, calls for officials to stop requiring that new mothers get IUD implants before their children are given legal status. A former university lecturer named Cai Zhiqi, who was fired from the South China University of Technology for having too many children, filed a lawsuit against the school in February.
Just as governments around the country have taken varying approaches to enforcing the one-child policy, they’ve also offered dissimilar predictions about how the liberalization will affect demographics.
A task force headed by Cai estimated the national birth rate would soar to 2.4 within a few years of a loosening, meaning the population would grow fast. He said the number of babies born every year would rise to up to 48 million every year.
Cai’s task force recommended allowing all parents to have a second child by 2015 but then heavily control couples so that no one has more than two, at least until 2020, when the birth policy would be further liberalized. By 2026, Cai said, the government should adopt policies that encourage couples to have children.
But Wang Guangzhou, a population researcher at the social sciences academy, offered a different forecast. He said that if all couples had been allowed to have a second child in 2013, births would have risen sharply in 2014. Yet even then, Wang said, the nation’s birth rate would not exceed 1.93.
Yi, meanwhile, reckoned that a spike in births could follow a decision to scrap the family-planning rules altogether, but afterward the birth rate would fall below 1.6.
Yi said family-planning policymakers must look far into the future. And that means now is the time to consider how today’s rules will affect families in the future based on current demographic trends.
“If we continue to punish (families) that have many children and reward those having few children as we do now, later we won’t be able to effectively encourage child-rearing,” Yi said. “And it will be very difficult to raise the birth rate.”
Several academics said that, from a demographic perspective, the years between 2005 and 2010 would have been an ideal period to adjust birth policies and thus the population. Now, they say, that window of opportunity is closing.
Li Jianmin, a professor of population policy at Nankai University’s Population and Development Institute, says soon there will be no time left for significant reforms. “Once the window period has passed, it will be very difficult to reform later,” he said.
China’s latest adjustment was considered a small step toward taking advantage of this open-window period. It is unclear whether more steps will follow.
Liu Xiaonan, an associate professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, said that in decades past neither government officials nor citizens thought much about how birth-control policies affected personal rights. That’s because the one-child policy was considered fair in light of the country’s social conditions.
To reach population control goals, Liu said, some officials have abused their authority. This abuse, although known by the public, was allowed to fester. Last year, things changed when the central government decided to let some parents have a second child.
“Because China lacks a constitutional review body, the only option for citizens, lawyers, and academics is to work to maintain personal rights,” said Liu. “They must exert pressure on the government, which can lead to improving legal institutions.”
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