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Allowing for a sibling (Hindu.)

How the Chinese took advantage of the easing of the one-child policy would ascertain the two-child policy’s impact

This January, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) announced that there were 17.86 million births in 2016, a 7.9% increase from 2015 when the country’s controversial one-child policy came to an end. About 45% of babies were born to families that already had one child, it said. The NHFPC also anticipates a baby boom, estimating the number of births annually to be between 17 and 20 million by 2020.

In February, the NHFPC said the government was contemplating incentives to parents so that they would not be deterred by the economic burdens that would result from having a second baby. Providing maternity and paternity leave and provisions for parents to attend to sick children are among the proposals.

The two claims may seem contradictory, but they are not. The confusion can be ascribed largely to the relegation in reportage, over the decades, of the regional variations in the enforcement of the one-child norm, which was always selective in its application, with several significant exemptions underpinning the rule.

Wrestling with old virtues

In the 1970s and ’80s, the Chinese were schooled in the virtues of not adding to the number of children to be fed and clothed. Correspondingly, offspring of the one-child era have become alive to the opportunity cost of raising a larger family. Moreover, official surveys point to a large number of women who are not particularly keen to have a second child. Also, there is an estimated decline of a few million in the number of women in the child-bearing age in the coming years. This is the context for additional incentives to sustain the recent rise in child births.

Regarding the selective nature of the one-child policy, the 2015 shift removed its last remnant. Under a 2013 relaxation, a couple was permitted to have two children if either parent was an only child. That was an improvement on the 2000 exemption, which allowed couples to have a second child only if both parents had no siblings. There were other concessions too, in rural areas, such as the option to have a second child if the first-born was either a girl or a disabled infant. A still less noticed, but nonetheless important, exemption was the freedom national minorities were allowed from the population control policy.

Thus, the prospects of the current approach would necessarily vary, depending on the extent to which people in different regions took advantage of the easing of the earlier norm. A challenge for the Chinese government would be to raise investment in the provision of child-care services, when it is already faced with a large ageing population and shrinking numbers in the working-age population.


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