Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Impact of China's One Child Rule

   In 1979, the Chinese government embarked on an ambitious program of market reform following the economic stagnation of the Cultural Revolution. At the time, China was home to a quarter of the world's people, who were occupying just seven percent of the world's arable land. Two thirds of the population was under age 30, and the baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s were entering their reproductive years. The government saw strict population containment as essential to economic reform and to an improvement in living standards. So the one-child family policy was introduced.1
   The policy consists of a set of regulations governing the approved size of Chinese families. These regulations include restrictions on family size, late marriage and childbearing, and the spacing of children (in cases in which a second child is permitted). The State Family Planning Bureau sets the overall targets and policy direction. Family-planning committees at provincial and county levels devise local strategies for implementation. Despite its name, the one-child rule applies to a minority of the population; for urban residents and government employees, the policy is strictly enforced, with few exceptions. The exceptions include families in which the first child has a disability or both parents work in high risk occupations (such as mining) or are themselves from one-child families (in some areas).2
   When the one-child policy was introduced, the government set a target population of 1.2 billion by the year 2000. The census for 2000 put the population at 1.27 billion, although some demographers regard this number at an underestimate. Chinese authorities claim that the policy has prevented 250 to 300 million births.3
   The majority of those who were prevented from being born were females and this is having a major impact on Chinese culture. The picture that emerges is that some urban Chinese make the choice to perform sex selection with the first pregnancy, since they are allowed only one child. In rural areas, most couples are permitted to have a second child, especially if the first is a female. So if the second (or subsequent) child is female, the pregnancy often "disappears", allowing the couple to have a second child in an attempt to have a son.4
   Sex-selective abortions are having a major impact on China. The number of young men of marrying age is increasing while, at the same time, the number of young women in that same age group has decreased tremendously. Trafficking in young women has become a major problem in China.It is not an uncommon experience for a young woman to be kidnapped from her home and sold to a man in another part of the country as his "bride".
   Another factor is that women are not held in very high regard in Chinese culture. While the people may not use these terms, the reality appears to be that boys are seen as a blessing while girls are seen as a curse. The government is attempting to combat this belief by using public education methods to inform the people that there is no difference between having a boy or a girl since girls can also continue the family line; however, this will be a major hurdle to overcome since the belief that boys are preferable to girls has been part of the culture for so many thousands of years and the one child policy seems to be encouraging that belief by allowing for sex-selection abortions, particularly if the child is female. Another challenge that China is currently facing is that those who are having abortions are no longer married women who already have one child, but young unmarried women.
   Unmarried women, including teenagers, are now having a rising number of abortions, and even constitute a majority of cases in Shanghai and parts of Beijing, according to academic studies and health experts. Many of these women - migrant workers, urban professionals, students, and prostitutes - are having multiple abortions.
   "We can see it beginning in large cities and the smaller cities, even down to the developing counties," says, Gu Baochang, a leading scholar on family planning policy at Renmin University in Beijing. "More and more abortions are for unmarried women. It is a very clear trend."5
   Not only does the "one child rule" have a negative impact on women, but it is having a negative impact on the overall economic future of China as well. The rapid decrease in the birth rate, combined with stable and improving life expectancy, has led to an increasing proportion of elderly people and an increase in the ratio between elderly parents and adult children. In China, the percentage of the population over age 65 was 5% in 1982 and now stands at 7.5%. This is expected to rise to more than 15% by 2025. Although these figures are lower than those in most industrialized countries (especially Japan, where the population of people over 65 is 20%), a lack of adequate pension coverage in China means that financial dependence on offspring is still necessary for approximately 70% of elderly people. Pension coverage is available only to those employed by the government or large companies. In China, this problem has been named the "4:2:1" phenomenon, meaning that increasing numbers of couples will be responsible for the care of one child and four elderly parents.6
   What is the future of this policy? The Chinese government is facing an important challenge: the need to balance the basic human right of reproduction with population growth, which, despite the policy's success, is still increasing at a rate of 8 per 1000, or 10 million people, per year. In making decisions about the future, several factors must be taken into consideration.
   First, relaxation of the policy can be considered only if fertility aspirations are such that a baby boom does not result. There is now good evidence that China is becoming a small-family culture. Data from the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Survey show that 35% of the women questioned preferred having only one child and 57% preferred having two children, but very few women (an average of 5.8%) wanted more than two. Young, urban, educated women wanted fewer children than did their counterparts in rural areas. In other studies, 75% of respondents in wealthy Jiangsu province were satisfied with an only girl. In Tibet, where most couples are permitted to have three children, 65% of the women wanted one or two children. The survey are also showed that in urban areas of China, where (with few exceptions) only one child is allowed, 43% of women still preferred having two children, so the one-child restriction remains unacceptable for nearly half of urban Chinese women.7
   Second, what was appropriate in 1979 may not be so now. China has undergone massive socioeconomic change since then. With the freedoms that have resulted from wealth and globalization, the one-child policy seems increasing anachronistic. Increased wealth and freedom also make it harder for the government to enforce the policy. Economic disincentives are not a deterrent to many wealthy people, and increased freedom of movement has made it difficult for family planning authorities to track down people if they choose to violate the regulation.8
   Finally, the evidence of slowing population growth, the high male to female sex ratio, the increasing number of elderly people, and the risks associated with avoidance of medical care by women with unapproved pregnancies suggest that a relaxation of the one-child policy would be desirable.9
While ending the one-child rule for economic reasons is not an ideal reason, the important thing is that this policy comes to an end. It is degrading to women and will have a deleterious effect on future generations based upon the very high male to female ratio.

End Notes

1 Therese Hesketh et al. "The Effect of China's One-Child Family Policy after 25 Years", NEJM, Vol. 353:1171-1176, September 15, 2005, No. 11
2 Hesketh, 1171
3 Short SE, Fengying Z. "Looking Locally at China's One-Child Policy" Stud Fam Plann 1998, 29:373-387
4 Jackson, T.R., Hesketh T., Xing Z.W. "China's One-Child Family Policy" NEJM, Vol. 354:877-877, 2006
5 Yardley, Jim "Today's Face of Abortion in China is a Young, Unmarried Woman" New York Times, May 13, 2007 November 30, 2009)
6 Hesketh, 1174
7 Hesketh, 1174
8 Hesketh, 1174
9 Hesketh, 1174

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