China has proposed making revisions to the country's policy of punishing couples who have more than one child. But instead, such population controls should be abolished entirely.
BEIJING — Though China loosened its one-child policy late last year to allow couples to have two children if one of the parents is an only child, others who breach the regulation are still fined heavily and arbitrarily, depending on the discretion of local authorities.
The penalty, known as a "social maintenance fee," is usually calculated based on the couple's combined annual income, but in cases of bigamy or extramarital relations, the fine can be multiplied.
Earlier this year, renowned Chinese film director Zhang Yimou was fined an astronomical 7.48 million RMB, about $1.2 million, for having three children with his second wife.
Legal experts say the existing policy is plagued with loopholes and gives too much power to local authorities, and say it's a good time to consider whether the practice of punishing couples financially for choosing to have multiple children is sound policy.
The state council's legislative affairs office has received proposed policy revisions from the public health regulator, and has released the updated language for public comment. The proposed revisions include clarifying and limiting the targets for punishment as well as standardizing how the fines are imposed and restricting local government discretion.
But Zhan Zhongle, a law professor at Peking University, says the ultimate reform goal should be to abolish the levy rather than revising how it's applied.
Zhan says that China's principal demographic problem is not overpopulation. Instead of making modest changes to regulations, such as the fine against couples who have more than one child, China should instead fundamentally change its family-planning policy to protect the right to have children.
He says the policy against families has long fallen into a state of complete disarray. Fines vary not only in amount but also in application. Beyond that, China is a vast country, which means that economic development levels between regions vary dramatically, making it impossible to adopt a unified system that's fair to all.
Meanwhile, China's demographic situation is increasingly alarming. In addition to a dramatic sex-ratio imbalance and an aging citizenry, there is also the problem of uneven population distribution, Zhan says.
The government introduced the one-child policy in 1979 because of concerns that baby booms in the 1950s and 1960s were making the population too large. By 2010, the birth rate had fallen to 1.18 per woman, far below the 2.1 figure that experts say is necessary for a population to remain stable.
Now the country is facing a rapidly aging population, with more than 200 million people over age 60. And sociologists predict there will be 35 million Chinese men for whom there are simply no available female partners by 2020.
The social maintenance fee should be a transitional policy. Now that it has accomplished its historical mission, it should be abandoned, Zhan says.
"The Fourth Plenum of the party’s 18th Central Committee has vowed to reform the administrative approval system," he says. "Citizens should be free to decide whether they want a child, or how many, and when. These are questions that should be fully determined by the couple concerned instead of being dealt with by administrative examination and permission."
It's time the Chinese government takes a different view. The collective good will be served by vigorously developing education, science and technology rather than obsessing about population control.