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How One-Child China Can Become Three-Child China

Social policy and mentality both must change for China to face its looming demographic crisis. Beijing's recent decision to loosen its one-child policy is just a start.

Kids playing in Guizhou in southwestern China
Kids playing in Guizhou in southwestern China
Liang Jianzhang, Huang Wenzheng and He Yafu

The recent third plenary session of the Chinese Communist Party has included a major break from China’s one-child policy that has long limited the number of children in each family. From now on when at least one parent of a couple is an only child, they will be allowed to have two children. Chinese leaders apparently now understand how the nation's low birthrate is a real threat to China's economy and society.

According to data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics, China currently has a birthrate of 1.2 children per woman. Even if the control over births is fully liberalized, birthrate will still not reach the 2.2 level that is required to maintain the so-called "population replacement" level.

Without policies that actually encourage childbearing, this is what looms in China's future: Youth population decreases, the labor force shrinks, the economy slides into the doldrums, financial health deteriorates, innovation is scarce. In other words, China will be plagued by a geriatric economy like that which currently haunts Japan and several southern European countries.

Thus, we propose the establishment of a Two Children Day.

In the face of the risk of a low fertility rate, some developed countries spare no effort in encouraging childbearing, though often with little success. The East Asian countries that share cultural similarities with China are the places facing the most serious problems.

Looking East and West

Japan and South Korea’s birthrates are around 1.3, while in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the number drops to a mere 1.0. Even though these countries’ governments regard encouraging childbirth as a top priority, it still proves difficult to achieve as families in modern society face both the high costs of raising children and the opportunities to pursue occupational and recreational goals instead.

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In Hohhot, north-central China — Photo: Athena Lao

The situation is even gloomier in China. Not only do Chinese urban households face more serious living and professional pressures than in other countries — the long decades of birth control propaganda have also distorted people’s ideas about having children. A lot of people think that it’s abnormal to have two children, and that not having a second child is a contribution to the nation.

Starting a few years ago, places such as Shanghai already allowed couples who are both only children to have two children; however only 20% of eligible couples had two offspring, and Shanghai’s birthrate has dropped to lower than 0.8%.

It is therefore necessary that the poisonous notion that “population is a burden” be forgotten, so that people understand that having two or three children is good for both a family and for society in general. In Russia, for example, the importance of population size and the promotion of childbirth is central to national policy. Russian President Vladimir Putin declared in his State of the Union speech that every Russian family should have at least three children.

Since some families will have only one child and some won’t have any at all, encouraging each family to have two children will never be enough to raise the fertility rate to the replacement level. We therefore propose that after full relaxation of its birth control policy, China should further encourage multiple births so as to restore Chinese families’ normal concept of childbearing and maintain a normal national reproduction state.

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In Shanghai — Photo: Joan Vila

Make that 3!

This is to say having two or three children should be common. As a matter of fact, giving a child a sibling is the greatest gift parents can give. This is why we suggest the establishment, on February 2, each year, of a Two Children Day. Were the control over births eased fully in the future, why not even a Three Children Day?

As various countries’ experiences show, once the birthrate drops, it’s extremely difficult to raise it again. Families don’t keep on having children just because the government encourages it. For instance, France has a long history of encouraging childbearing, but the effect is still inadequate. Currently France has a fertility rate of around 2.0 which is a lot higher than that of China — but still insufficient for population replacement.

Finally the most important of all is the implementation of practical policies to ease the pressure on young couples raising children, such as the implementation of 15-year compulsory education starting from kindergarten to secondary school. These policies should not be addressed to only the urban population but given universal coverage, because most youngsters from China’s rural areas work in the cities today. They face even greater child-raising pressure and their willingness to have children is as low as that of urban dwellers.

All in all, supportive economic policies are imperative so that China’s new family planning policy can be effective. Meanwhile, measures such as setting up a Two Children Day are essential to help shift people’s mentality and raise social awareness.

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