Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University, and a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
In a move that will find great favour with families across China, the Communist regime is easing its controversial one-child limit and will allow couples to have two children.
When China's leaders imposed strict childbirth limits in 1980, they were tacitly admitting that economic growth in the first 30 years of Communist rule was so poor that, unless the population were controlled by the state, it would instead be controlled brutally and naturally through famine.
I remember well, from my own lean student days in China during the 1970s, the strict rationing of grain and other foodstuffs. How times have changed. Today, China can afford to compensate for shortfalls in its own grain production, and has been a net importer of food for more than a decade.
The one-child policy – which required that most citizens get permission from the state to have a child – came into effect not long after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong. Under Mao, the Chinese Communist Party encouraged families to have as many children as possible because of his belief that population growth empowered the country. Over the quarter-century of his rule, China's population ballooned from around 540 million in 1949 to 940 million in 1976.
Today, China faces the inverse perils of a rapidly aging population. By 2030, it is estimated there will be one person drawing a pension for every two working taxpayers, so the population pendulum must urgently start swinging the other way or the social effects will again be dire.
The easing of family-planning laws was much anticipated, and long overdue.
In the early years, the consequences of quotas on pregnancies were very harsh. Women who sought to conceal unplanned pregnancies were often subject to the horror of late-term abortions. Abandonment and infanticide of baby girls became common because, under Chinese cultural norms and in the absence of social welfare measures, it was sons who would carry on the family name and care for their parents in old age. Government campaigns encouraging families to cherish daughters, and attempts to restrict the use of ultrasound examinations to determine fetus gender, largely failed for this reason.
The subsequent lopsided demographic ratio of males to females has made it difficult for poor young men to find wives, and led many frustrated young bachelors to criminal gang activity in response to the social shame of becoming a so-called "barren branch" on the family tree. The kidnapping and sale of young women, some even brought in from border countries such as North Korea, has been an ongoing problem, not to mention China's rampant spread of prostitution.
Moreover, the policy led to the creation of a subclass of "invisible" children, born secretly outside the quotas. Such children cannot legalize their registry in urban areas, attend school, qualify for social welfare benefits or even apply for passports to seek a less shadowy life abroad. Millions live a Kafkaesque life, permanently consigned to the margins of society, because they do not officially exist as citizens of the Chinese state.
A further legacy of this is that the large number of Chinese children adopted into Canadian families, bringing joy to couples who yearn to be parents, are nearly all little girls. China has orphanages full of them, waiting for good homes abroad.
State enforcement of the one-child policy, however, has always been inconsistent. Ethnic minorities were largely exempted to lessen their discontent, and in recent years there was a loosening in urban areas that were experiencing population decline. As well, these family-planning regulations became another pretext for official corruption through fines or bribes extracted from couples who could afford to essentially buy permission to have a second child or even a third.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the policy change will be sociological. Under the one-child policy, most children are overindulged by two parents and four grandparents. They have no brothers or sisters, cousins, or uncles and aunts. All the expectations of the generations fall onto their young shoulders, and the pressure to succeed can be crushing and character-distorting. Moreover, these "little emperors" tend to grow up with an exaggerated sense of self-importance and often lack the social sensibilities necessary to a civil society.
The termination of this policy is a rare piece of good news out of China, and should be welcomed. It's likely that Chinese couples with only one child will be turning in early tonight.