Whenever Beijing adjusts – or even talks about the possibility of adjusting – its one-child policy, the development prompts media headlines predicting its end, but Women’s Rights Without Frontiers president Reggie Littlejohn said that this was misleading.
“The Chinese Communist Party periodically modifies the one-child policy, but the coercion at its core remains,” she said. “Reports of these tweaks – especially when mischaracterized by western media – throw the human rights world into confusion and blunt genuine efforts to end forced abortion in China.”
On Friday a spokesman for China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) told Chinese media that the state body was deliberating whether to adjust the policy to permit a couple to have two children if one of the parents is an only child.
Current rules allow a second child if both parents are themselves only children. There are also other specified exceptions, for example some rurally-based or ethnic minority couples are permitted to have a second child if their firstborn is a girl.
NHFPC spokesman Mao Qun’an “reaffirmed that China must adhere to the basic state policy of family planning for a long period of time,” the Xinhua state news agency reported.
“To improve population policies, Mao said, China must maintain the current low birth rate while also taking into consideration the public's needs, social and economic development, and changes in the population structure,” Xinhua reported.
Economists and demographers have been warning for years about the long-term consequences of China’s birth restrictions.
When the one-child policy was introduced in the 1970s, Chinese aged 60 and over accounted for around eight percent of the total population. The proportion climbed to 12 percent in 2010, and according to United Nations projections it will reach 34 percent by 2050.
As that occurs, a shrinking workforce will be supporting a growing elderly population.
“China is on the eve of a demographic shift that will have profound consequences on its
economic and social landscape,” two International Monetary Fund economists warned in a report early this year. “Within a few years the working age population will reach a historical peak, and will then begin a precipitous decline.”
Social scientists also have predicted massive social upheaval in the coming years, as growing numbers of young men are unable to find women to marry: In a society where male children are still preferred for traditional and economic reasons, the one-child policy has led to mass-scale sex-selective abortions of baby girls, even though the practice is illegal.
A 2009 study in the British Medical Journal found that there were 32 million more males than females in China under the age of 18, and that “[s]ex selective abortion accounts for almost all the excess males.”
The researchers found a national average ratio of 124 boys to 100 girls, rising in some provinces to 140 boys to 100 girls. The international norm is 103-107 boys for every 100 girls.
Consequences of the skewed gender ratio already seen include a rise in cross-border trafficking of women and girls into China from Southeast Asia and elsewhere, according to the State Department.
Chinese media periodically report on another likely linked phenomenon – an illegal trade in babies. Just this week Xinhua reported on claims that an obstetrician was telling parents their healthy newborn babies had incurable congenital diseases, and was then allegedly selling them to other couples.
Forced abortion, sterilization, infanticide
Beyond the economic and social impact of the birth-limitation policy, human rights activists draw attention to mass-scale abuses against those who contravene the regulations, ranging from punitive fines and loss of jobs to forced abortions and involuntary sterilizations carried out by family-planning officials.
For campaigners like Littlejohn of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers (WRWF), government-enforced restrictions on family size are wrong, however the system may be adjusted from time to time.
“The problem with the one-child policy is not the number of children ‘allowed,’” she said. “Rather, it is the fact that the CCP is telling women how many children they can have and then enforcing that limit through forced abortion, forced sterilization and infanticide.”
“Regardless of the number of children allowed, women who get pregnant without permission will still be dragged out of their homes, strapped down to tables and forced to abort babies that they want, even up to the ninth month of pregnancy,” she said.
Littlejohn also argued that a two-child policy will not stop the sex-selective abortion of baby girls. She noted that the 2009 British Medical Journal study had found that, when it came to second births for parents whose first child was a daughter, the gender ratio was even more lopsided, rising in the case of two provinces to above 190 boys for every 100 girls.
A definitive 2004 Center for Strategic and International Studies report on China’s demographics said the particularly male-heavy ratio for second children reflected “the desperation of couples who didn’t produce a son the first time around.”
WRWF last week filed a complaint with the U.N.’s Commission on the Status of Women, urging it to confront the Chinese government over the coercive enforcement of the one-child policy.
If Beijing does change its policies to permit a larger group of parents to have second children without breaking the law and risking punitive measures, the move will be welcomed by many Chinese couples.
The South China Morning Post this week reported on a new opinion survey finding that 56 percent of respondents said they would like to have a second child, while a further 28 per cent said they would like to, but could afford only one child.