China is moving toward abandoning the policies of birth suppression that have been a defining feature of Communist rule for nearly four decades.
A new draft of China’s Marriage Law and Adoption Law ”no longer contains content about the family planning policy,” the state-run Procuratorate Daily reported on its Twitter-like Weibo account. The brevity of the post – using 13 Chinese characters to signal the historic shift – masked its import.
China halted its long-standing one-child policy in 2016, replacing it with a two-child policy for many families. Earlier this year, officials eliminated “family planning” from the name of the National Health Commission. The draft of the new Marriage Law and Adoption Law received first legislative reading on Monday and could become law by next March – although Chinese legal scholars have pointed to other laws that would have to be revoked in order to fully repeal the country’s birth policies. A Tuesday headline in China Daily declared: Civil code plans don’t mean family planning is over.
But China appears to be moving toward dismantlement of its birth-control regime, which would put a definitive end to an era marked by a deep reach of the state into China’s bedrooms and wombs, in the name of improving individual economic prosperity by limiting the total size of the population.
Any further relaxation, however, is unlikely to assuage the simmering anger among Chinese citizens over the ways their lives have been forcibly sculpted by a Communist Party not prone to express regret for past mistakes. In fact, the proposed elimination of birth restrictions has prompted a bitter re-examination of history in China and new fears about government interventions into the sex lives of its citizens, this time to promote childbirth.
Across China, regional and provincial governments have begun trying to entice women into producing more children, offering free hospital deliveries, cash incentives, extended maternity leaves and other benefits. Political leaders fear a new demographic threat, as economists forecast decades ahead marked by a shrinking work force, aging population, rising health-care costs and, for all of those reasons, dampened economic performance.
The civil-code draft is “a signal that they foresee that in the future, low fertility will become a major problem the country needs to face,” said Wu Xiaogang, founding director of the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Few demographers expect a surge of children if family restrictions are expunged. A modest surge in births in 2016 accompanied the move to a two-child policy, but the number of births slipped again in 2017.
Completely eliminating family planning “will not lead to increased fertility,” Prof. Wu said. In years past, “they could suppress people’s desire to have more children. But once the birth rate is low, it will be very difficult to persuade people to have more.”
That is particularly true for women, he said. Research shows a link between low fertility rates and improvements in the status of women. “That’s why I’m saying it’s irreversible, because more and more women are educated and have careers,” he said.
But government attempts to reverse declining birth rates have already proven controversial, raising concern that Chinese planners, eager to maintain the country’s economic rise, will return to coercion. Women have criticized a new policy in Jiangxi province that limits access to abortion after 14 weeks of pregnancy.
It’s a policy in line with what other provinces have already enacted, but has nonetheless provoked concern that when it comes to encouraging birth, China will take a page from its long-standing efforts to discourage birth.
“They appear to be following the same playbook – more of the stick, less of the carrot,” said Mei Fong, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.
The long-term social and demographic effects of birth restrictions mean “the next 10 to 20 years will see an intensification of the pain that the one-child policy has caused,” she warned, pointing to an aging population and gender imbalance.
At the same time, China’s abrupt reversal of course on children – first circumscribing them, suddenly promoting them – has caused people “to question the value of the previous policy,” Ms. Fong said.
Indeed, said Wang Duorui, a 22-year-old university student in Beijing, “the very first thing that came to my mind when I spotted this news” – about the elimination of family planning from the legal draft – “was that this country never treats its people like real human beings. Citizens are nothing but tools for the government to achieve its political goals.”
She worries that her generation will one day “be fined or forced to pay more taxes if they don’t have kids.”
Prof. Wu, who has served as an academic adviser to the China Family Panel Studies at Peking University, expressed doubt that Chinese authorities would ever obligate birth, in part because “forcing people to have a sex life, I don’t know how to do it,” he said.
But for women like Ms. Wang, the prospect of children isn’t appealing. “If I choose to have two kids, it means that I, as my family’s only child, will need to raise not just two children, but four old people as well,” she said. It sounds to her like a recipe for mental collapse, or career failure.
For Song Yang, 30, an illustrator in Hangzhou, it’s also a question of generational justice.
“My parents belong to the cohort deprived of their reproductive rights by the one-child policy, but the government hasn’t given them even a single line of apology,” she said.
The prospect of “eliminating family planning has nothing to do with human rights, it’s just to get a better-looking birth rate,” she said.
“This is the government trying to make up for damages from the old policies. No matter how miserable or happy our lives, in the eyes of government, we are nothing but tiny bits of data, numbers. Our happiness doesn’t matter.”
With reporting by Alexandra Li