If you’re a woman who’s been a citizen of China during the past four decades, you’ve likely feared the fertility workers. If you get pregnant, meetings with those officials are a regular event – you have to register your pregnancy with the National Health Commission, a lengthy process. Until recently, if it was your second or third pregnancy, the fertility cadres could hit you with a big fine, or they’d tell your employer to fire you, or force you to terminate the pregnancy or get sterilized.
On Monday, at a meeting of the Politburo chaired by President Xi Jinping, those workers were given a new job: to enforce China’s new three-child policy. It will replace the two-child policy, which came into effect in 2016, which in turn replaced the notorious one-child policy, created in 1980.
Westerners tend to think of this aggressively bureaucratic approach to family size as a distinct feature of China’s communism – and some believe the policies are successes. Both views are wrong. Neither the one- or two-child policies have had any significant effect on China’s birth rate, in either direction, and it seems certain the three-child policy won’t either. And the thinking behind them is an unfortunate import from this side of the world.
China, like most countries, is no longer having enough children to keep growing. It averages 1.3 children per woman; its population is likely to peak around 2030, at around the current 1.4 billion.
You’d think that would be more than enough people for one country. By most reasonable measures, it is. But China’s growing prosperity means that life expectancies keep rising, so the population is growing older. Projections show that China’s national pension plan will be bankrupt some time in the late 2070s.
Again, China is far from alone here. The usual response is either to acknowledge that workers will need to pay higher pension contributions and taxes, or to increase immigration, or (as seen in Canada and Germany) both.
In China, it is neither. Mr. Xi has decided to continue with the 41-year-old approach of micromanaging the number of children people have.
Some have speculated that he might be afraid of plunging that huge army of fertility workers, probably numbering several million, into unemployment. But there’s a larger reason: Beijing officials have been led to believe in it.
When the one-child policy was proposed in 1979, China was a country of peasant farmers with big families and high levels of starvation-level poverty. This was the fault of Chinese Communist Party policies, which from the 1950s had avoided the economic modernization that leads to smaller families.
But influential Western leaders and scholars, obsessed with population growth as an intrinsic world problem, believed the solution was to control the growth itself, rather than its causes. The Club of Rome’s population-doomsday study The Limits to Growth, widely discredited elsewhere, had a huge influence on Beijing, and led directly to the 1980 policy.
The one-child policy accomplished nothing, beyond increasing the rate of forced abortions and sterilization. As demographers have conclusively proven, about 70 per cent of China’s family-size decline had already occurred in the decade before the one-child policy; the remaining 30 per cent is fully accounted for by urbanization, income growth and the education of women.
Slashing China’s family size never required a one-child policy – and it won’t grow as a result of a two- or three-child policy. The idea of solving pension costs with demographic “carrots and sticks” was championed loudly by U.S.-based business consultants, and again Beijing took the bait.
What would actually cause it to grow? The same things that increase family sizes in countries, like Canada, that really are in need of population growth.
One Chinese poll asked young couples why they weren’t willing to have an extra child. The top reasons were economic burdens (75 per cent), lack of child-care support (51.5 per cent) and the “motherhood penalty,” in which women with children are denied raises and job offers (35.3 per cent). There’s clearly a gap between the number of children couples want to have and the number they end up having – as there is in Canada – but it won’t be closed by ordering them to have another baby.
China has little support for child care. Its health system is largely fee-charging. Getting children into university requires big fees paid to tutoring providers. Companies often don’t hire women of child-bearing age. Having a second or third kid, in other words, is prohibitively expensive.
In that regard, China has become a very normal country, with familiar problems. Unfortunately, it’s stuck with a government that would rather solve them by making life tougher for women.
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