The end of population control in the form of what is popularly known as China’s “one child policy”, was announced in October 2015. Although the number of permitted births always varied by geography and ethnicity, “one child policy” entered the lexicon and stuck. In the west it became a synonym for invasive and inhumane interventions by the state—which were almost entirely borne by women.
At the time the policy was adopted in 1979, China was emerging from the economic and social disaster of the Cultural Revolution. China was poor and population growth was seen as both a correlate of poverty and an obstacle to Deng’s nascent economic reforms.
In this context, population control measures were framed as a rational, indeed noble, effort to facilitate economic development. The number of births per women declined from 3 to 1.5 between 1980 and 2000, where the figure has remained, well below the required replacement rate.
Officials have said that the policy succeeded in limiting the Chinese population by over 400 million, although others argue that rising levels of education, urbanisation, and economic independence would have led to declining birth rates even without coercive policies. It is also now recognized that population controls have had unintended consequences, notably an extreme gender imbalance, a dangerous dependency ratio and the social issues faced by the “one child” generation.
The announcement in October 2015 that limitations would be relaxed and all married couples allowed two children, signalled the realisation that China’s population is ageing rapidly, the labour pool is shrinking and the current fertility rate is insufficient to support the pensions, health care, and social security needs of the dependent population.
The ratio of retirees to working-age people is 13 percent and rising quickly as boomers from the 1950s and 60s age. By 2030, China will have the largest population of old people, with the implications that has for sustained economic growth, international competitiveness and social welfare.
Population growth, rather than control, is now advanced as needed for the good of the country’s continued economic development. Encouragement of multiple births has been issued in various formats, and exhortations to have a second child can even be seen on billboards in certain locales.
Although the new policy was not made on the basis of women’s wellbeing, the relaxation of population policy has been interpreted as a positive development for women. It is, but it should be noted that it will do little to stop forced sterilisations and abortions for those who contravene the new regulations.
Population control policies became a symbol of the, often brutal, control of women’s bodies, as dramatized by the writer Ma Jian in his novel The Dark Road, a book that is well read in the west.
The novel describes the odyssey of family-planning fugitives Meili, Kongzi and their One Child Policy-compliant daughter Nannan as they escape officials with their fines, forced abortions and sterilizations.
Agonizing over the gender of her unborn babies (girls won’t do) and the consequences of getting caught with an out of plan child, Meili muses how her body belongs to her husband and her womb to the state.
With a second baby almost at full term, Meili is captured by a family planning squad. The male foetus named Happiness is forcibly aborted in an indelible scene of shocking brutality juxtaposed with the transactional nonchalance of the physician offering a knock-down price for the operation.
When another baby is born, and it turns out to be a girl, Kongzi sells her to a child begging racket. The family finally reaches Heaven, a “cancer village” recycling electronic waste, where Meili becomes pregnant again. Traumatized by her experiences she refuses to relinquish the baby until many months beyond the usual gestation period, finally giving birth to an alien-like thing mutated by poisonous e-waste.
The Dark Road is an inversion, or perversion, of the ‘natural order’, where Happiness is a murdered baby, Heaven is a cancer village, pregnant women are criminals and babies are produced for mutilation and the begging trade.
It is a dramatization, but it highlights important issues about women and their reproductive rights that are often neglected in the “rational” discussion about demographics and population growth statistics.
The economic reform era has witnessed the retreat of the state from many aspects of people’s lives. The danwei (work unit) no longer has a say in who people marry or where they can live. Freedom of movement, despite ongoing issues with hukou (household registration) reform, was one of the engines powering economic growth.
Women’s reproductive rights have been subject to state interventions since the inception of the PRC in 1949, when Mao’s exhortations led to rapid population growth. And while the current government’s “two child policy” is less restrictive, it continues to exert control over women’s bodies.
The response to the relaxation, which started in stages in 2013, has not led to a “baby boom”. A mere 13% of eligible couples took advantage of their second child rights in 2013. Like Singapore, Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong, which have the lowest total fertility rates in the world, increasing affluence, education and economic pressures in China are disincentives to raising large families. Furthermore, without state provision of better childcare, subsidies for schooling and systematic health care, many families are unwilling or unable to consider raising multiple children.
More pertinently, the response to the relaxed restrictions demonstrates that people can be trusted to take “rational” personal decisions for themselves. At what point will the state decide to retreat from the most intimate social relations of all?