Chinese married couples are now graciously permitted by the Communist Party to have two children. It is a policy adjustment born out of anxiety about the impact on the economy of skewed demographics, and the fear that a shrinking labour force and growing ranks of retirees will condemn China to grow old before it grows rich. But after 35 years of forced abortion, female infanticide, unregistered births and traumatised individuals, the party may find that it was easier to reduce China’s families than to enlarge them. It will take rather more, at this point, than official permission to change China’s birthrate significantly. In 1969, after 20 years of Maoist disorder, China was an impoverished agrarian society with a typical birthrate of six children per woman. Children were assets then, because they brought an extra pair of hands and a hedge against starvation in old age. There was little geographical or social mobility, and several generations of the family still lived together, grandparents taking care of infants as mothers laboured in the fields. Large families were officially encouraged: Mao Zedong considered Thomas Malthus a capitalist thinker and socialism, he believed, would provide. China, he boasted, could afford to lose 100 million people, thus prevailing in the nuclear war with the USSR that he thought would come. By 1979, Mao was dead and Deng Xiaoping took a different view. China could prosper, he thought, only if the expanding population did not eat the profits of the expanding economy. The reproductive right of China’s citizens were abolished: not only did they have to apply for permission to reproduce, but any violation could result in forced abortion, or a large fine. After more than 30 years of a sometimes brutally enforced one-child policy, Chinese society is changed for ever. A falling tally of workers and rising number of pensioners has brought into increasingly sharp focus a nagging anxiety: will China get old before it gets rich? A country that does not welcome immigration is facing a long term demographic problem. But China may have waited too long to lift a rule long overtaken by economic and social change. This new decree- which allows married couples two children- is only a small adjustment to a 2013 policy relaxation that already permitted couples two children if one parent was an only child. Remarkably few eligible couples took up the offer, and the reasons are not hard to find.
China today is a majority urban society and those mothers who once laboured in the fields now work long hours in factories; most live hundreds or even thousands of miles from their villages, their parental support and, if they have them, their children. As migrants they are not entitled to send their children to urban schools and have nobody to take care of them while they work. There is little parental leave and less state-provided care; housing is barely affordable and a decent education expensive. China has gone from a nation in which survival and status was built on family and clan to one in which most children have no siblings, no cousins and no aunts or uncles. The further irony is that China, for all the misery and cruelty of its one-child policy, has achieved a birthrate no lower than that achieved by its Asian neighbours- Taiwan, Hong-Kong and South Korea- without coercion. In Taiwan, for instance, the fertility rate had dropped to 1.8 children per woman by the late 1980s and to 0.9 by 2010. Educated urban women who can choose, as we know, tend to have small families. Today, Taiwan pays cash incentives to mothers to encourage larger families. The legacy of brutal enforcement in China is nevertheless profound: there is a national gender imbalance, the product of the preference for a male child, which could leave some 19 million young men in want of a wife. Precariously financed local governments have collected billions in fines for children born without party approval, revenues they will only reluctantly forgo. Those who could not afford to pay found other ways: in extreme cases they resorted to infanticide; others abandoned unwanted infants or sent them to relatives. One result is an unknown number of undocumented citizens, and children who have been denied access to public education or health services. Will the government truly abandon it’s interference in family life and declare an amnesty for the casualties of an overbearing and cruel policy?