Mothership Explains: Why China's new 3-child policy isn't likely to work

MS Explains: Why is the China's new three-child policy so unpopular, and what can be done to make it work?

Jason Fan | June 14, 2021, 03:37 PM

Recently, China announced that married Chinese couples may have up to three children, marking a major shift in public policy.

For many of us, it wasn't that long ago when China's infamous one-child policy was still in place: after all, China only officially relaxed its regulations to allow couples to have two children in 2015.

Given that the original one-child policy was put in place in 1980, and lasted a full 35 years before being replaced by the two-child policy, why is China increasing their limit on children just six years after the last change?

To answer that, we will have to dive into why the one-child policy was implemented in the first place, and the issues it caused along the way.

Population control became a national issue in the 1970s

In 1968, Stanford University entomologist Paul Ehrlich published a book called The Population Bomb, which predicted worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s, due to overpopulation.

While the book was initially ignored, it would soon become one of the most influential books of the 20th century, selling millions of copies around the globe.

The book had a simple message: Many of the world's problems could be attributed to overpopulation, and unless humanity cut down its numbers, the human race could face "mass starvation" on "a dying planet".

It is perhaps no coincidence that shortly after the book was published, governments around the world began to look at population control as a key policy item.

For example, in 1969, the U.S. Congress increased the U.S. Agency for International Development's budget for family planning to US$50 million, a 20-fold increase in two years.

The budget was later doubled again, just two years later.

Back at home, then-Minister for Health Chua Sian Chin introduced Singapore's two-child family policy during the launch of the 1972 National Family Planning Campaign, better known to most as the "Stop at Two" campaign.

According to calculations then, an average of two children per family would eventually result in the stabilisation of Singapore's population.

A number of disincentives were implemented in order to discourage couples from having more children: from the progressive increase of childbirth fees charged in government hospitals based on birth order, to lowering the priority for allocation of Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats for families with more than two children.

The message was clear, and the policy was wildly successful, with Singapore's birth rates plummeting after the introduction of the "Stop at Two" campaign.

China's one-child policy was strict, not as strict as many imagine

While population control policies were increasingly common across the globe in the 1970s, China took it a step further, by mandating a one-child policy in 1979.

The policy, which was officially implemented in 1980 through a public letter published by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, required couples from China's ethnic Han majority to limit themselves to one child.

While the policy was meant to be universal, the policy was implemented far more effectively in urban cities, where much of the population consisted of small nuclear families who were generally more willing to comply.

On the other hand, the policy was difficult to enforce in rural areas, and families in more traditional areas were more resistant to the restrictions.

The penalties for disobeying the policy varied: some were fined, while in the early 1980s, forced abortions and sterilisations were conducted.

By 1984, however, the one-child policy had gone through some reform, and more exemptions were made for families to have more than one child.

For example, couples in rural areas were allowed to have an additional child, if their firstborn was a girl. Parents who came from single-child families were also given leeway to have a second child.

In 2013, the Beijing municipal government office on family planning updated its list of exceptions to the one-child rule.

According to the Washington Post, most of these involved those that lived in rural areas: for example, couples who live in the mountains and only have a daughter will be allowed to have an additional child, if they were reliant on farming and were poor.

While China may have gone a step further than most countries in controlling population growth with its one-child policy, it was still not as rigid and unyielding as some might have imagined, especially in rural areas.

The one-child policy led to many social issues

Nonetheless, the one-child policy lasted until 2015, and had lasting consequences.

On one hand, the policy largely achieved its goal of population control: a 1992 National Fertility Survey found that the total fertility rate was 1.65 children per woman, well below the replacement level of 2.1 — the commonly-accepted rate of reproduction needed for a population to sustain itself without immigration.

However, other side effects of the policy were more worrying.

Gender imbalance

China's overall sex ratio became skewed towards males. Parents traditionally preferred male children as only sons could inherit the family name and property.

Sons could also be expected to take care of their elderly parents.

The preference for sons was particularly prevalent in rural areas.

When restricted to having only one child, most families found having a girl highly undesirable, resulting in a rise of abortions of female fetuses, made possible by the availability of ultrasound sex determination.

In extreme cases, female children were even placed in orphanages, abandoned, or even killed.

Over time, the gap between the number of males and females in China has widened significantly, with 113 boys born for every 100 girls in 2020.

And while immigration and other factors have brought the overall gender ratio in China in 2020 to a more palatable 105 males per 100 females, the fact remains that there are 37.7 million more males than females in China.

This gender imbalance has led to a number of social issues.

For example, bride trafficking is a major problem in China, as many women and girls in neighbouring countries are trafficked illegally into China every year, in order to make up for the shortfall in brides.

According to Human Rights Watch, many of these unfortunate individuals, from places such as Cambodia, Vietnam and even North Korea, are typically tricked by brokers promising well-paid employment in China, and are sold to Chinese families once they cross the border.

Bride price

The gender imbalance has also led to a surge in popularity of a practice known as the "bride price", where a Chinese groom's family is expected to not only pay for the wedding, but also gift the bride's family significant amounts of property and money, for the privilege of marrying one of China's dwindling number of brides.

So how much are grooms expected to fork out?

According to ThinkChina, the highest bride price in 2013 was paid in Shanghai, consisting of a house and 100,000 RMB, or a little more than S$20,000 when converted today.

In contrast, the annual per capita gross income of Chinese urban citizens was only 26,955 RMB (about S$5,580), and 8896 RMB (about S$1,842) for rural citizens in 2014.

This means that on average, urban citizens would have needed to save up for more than four years to pay a bride price of 100,000 RMB, while rural citizens need to save up for at least twelve years, without taking into account daily expenses.

And bride prices have soared since 2013, with Reuters reporting that grooms in some parts of northern China in 2019 would need to spend around 700,000 RMB, or more than S$144,000, in order to get married.

This has led to increasing numbers of "leftover men": potential grooms, particularly in rural areas, who are unable to afford marriage.

Two-child policy enacted in 2016

This brings us to 2016, when the Chinese government announced that it was putting an end to its one-child policy, allowing couples to have two children legally.

Officials from China's National Health and Family Planning Commission predicted in November 2015 that the policy shift would result in around three million extra babies born each year over the next five years, which would lead to an additional 30 million people in the country's labour force by 2050.

These statistics were vital from an economic policy perspective, because one of the biggest problems arising from the one-child policy is China's increasingly ageing population.

A 2019 Time report revealed that by 2050, 330 million Chinese will be over the age of 65.

This, coupled with falling birth rates, means that China's economy would eventually go into a steep decline, as fewer people means less consumption, and more elderly people would place a heavier tax burden on the dwindling younger population.

However, although the easing of the one-child policy did lead to more births since 2016, China's fertility rate remains below the replacement level, and is lower than what the government would have wanted.

There was a notable improvement, but it was clear that more needed to be done.

Young people feel that they cannot afford to have large families

This brings us to the present time, where China has just recently announced the new quota of three children for families.

Response to the new policy was "mixed", according to a report by South China Morning Post, although the publication reported that only 1,443 out of 31,000 people polled said they were "ready" to have a third child.

Other media outlets, such as Quartz, pointed out that Chinese social media users have shown clear disdain for the new three-child policy.

Many pointed out that young Chinese people are facing too much pressure at work, and are thus unwilling to have large families, with one saying that "996 is the best birth control", referring to a work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week, that represents the overwork culture prevalent in many Chinese tech companies.

Other netizens said that substantial benefits would need to be given to encourage large families.

This is because the rising cost of living and increasing competitiveness within China has led many to feel that having more than one child is a goal that is simply out of reach.

Such critical comments have since been removed from social media platforms, according to Quartz, and replaced by more positive responses, such as one that stated "we passionately support the country's new policy".

Concrete bonuses needed to promote births

Given the lukewarm reaction towards the new three-child policy, what more can China do?

Dan Wang, a chief economist at Hang Seng Bank in China told SCMP that the high costs of housing and education in China mean that most middle-class families cannot afford a third child.

She suggested government subsidies to promote more births, and also a new tax system to incentivise companies to hire women of childbearing age.

In the same vein, Eric Zhu, an economist in China, told Bloomberg that while China's new three-child policy may be "a step in the right direction", other steps are sorely needed.

He suggested implementing more birth- and parenting-friendly policies, and increasing the national pension age to counter the problem of an ageing population in China.

The concept of government policy incentivising births is not new — with one example being the Baby Bonus Scheme in Singapore.

The scheme is designed to help parents lighten the financial costs of raising children, and incentivises parents to have more children, with a bigger cash gift for a couple's third and fourth child.

Besides the cash gift, the government also contributes to a special savings account, helping couples defray child-raising expenses.

The maximum government contribution for couples having their second child was recently doubled to S$6,000 as well.

And while the true effectiveness of the Baby Bonus is debatable, couples who benefit from the incentive schemes are unlikely to complain.

Birth control policies are likely here to stay

Experts say that on its own, China's three-child policy is unlikely to yield results in the long run.

Looking back at the implementation of the two child policy in 2015, China's birth rate rose immediately after the policy shift, but its impact quickly dissipated after around three years.

Similarly, while the three-child policy may lead to a momentary bump in birth rates, most analysts are not optimistic that the results would be lasting.

So if the policy isn't working as well as intended, why not scrap it altogether?

Analysts in China and abroad agree that the removal of restrictions on children is unlikely to impact the birth rate significantly, but China is not likely to completely abandon their birth control policies.

An op-ed on the East Asia Forum opined that this is because doing so could prove embarrassing for the Chinese Communist Party, given that the original one-child policy was a significant move by the party.

Perhaps a new four-child policy will be announced sometime in the future, sooner rather than later.

Mothership Explains is a series where we dig deep into the important, interesting, and confusing going-ons in our world and try to, well, explain them.

This series aims to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand explanations to keep our readers up to date on not just what is going on in the world, but also the "why's".

Top image via Unsplash.