When China’s government released its census data last month, it revealed the extent of the population slowdown. The country’s fertility rate is now one of the lowest in the world. Last year the number of births were similar to those of the early 1960s, when China struggled with a multiyear famine.
The figures are evidently too stark to ignore. This week the government announced a new three-child policy, further relaxing population controls that have been in place for four decades. The Chinese public responded to the announcement online by mocking its inadequacy. Though parents have been permitted to have two children since 2015, domestic experts and even the central bank have called for population controls to be scrapped entirely. They warn of the impending problems brought by a rapidly narrowing population, such as the burden on young individuals who must support ageing parents and grandparents.
But Beijing is reluctant to sever ties with its historic population controls entirely. To acknowledge that the government has erred would be to admit that the Communist party’s most hated policy since the Mao era has not only been vicious but also pointless. Developed in the late 1970s on the basis of population trajectories, the one-child policy was championed by weapons scientists, one of the few groups of researchers to retain political clout after the Cultural Revolution. In the decades since, the one-child policy has led to so much state intrusion into women’s bodies that the trauma is still far from being aired.
It is important to reflect on these traumas, from the multitude of forced abortions to the daughters hidden away in order to try for sons. But the Communist party is not interested in reflection. In its swing from restricting to encouraging births, the government needs to avoid making similar mistakes. The population control apparatus has been set up to collect fines and enforce sterilisations. A very different approach will be necessary to support births.
Countries’ health and population policies can empower or cripple their citizens. The first time I experienced the difference was as a visiting student at Peking University. In a class discussing sexual health with graduate students of social work, I mentioned that women could get IUDs for free on the UK’s NHS. My mostly female classmates audibly gasped. I flicked through my dictionary, wondering if I had made a translation error. Finally, one asked whether women got them voluntarily. For them the IUD was a small metal weapon of forced sterilisation. They could be inserted into women’s wombs against their will and left there. My classmates did not consider that a woman might willingly ask for one in order to have control over her own body.
When China’s scientists projected the population trajectory in the 1970s, they did not account for social variables. Combined with the historic preference for sons common to a patriarchy, the one-child policy led to sex-selective abortions, further reducing future fertility. The government counts 17m more men aged 20 to 40 than women.
China’s population slowdown would probably have happened anyway as people moved to cities and women’s education and income grew. Now, China’s male-dominated leadership needs to contend with a new generation of women. The daughters that survived did not have brothers to compete with for resources, resulting in a highly educated and ambitious cohort of post-1980s women.
Population policies often have unintended consequences. Ye Liu, a lecturer at King’s College London who has documented women born in the 1980s, says that while the two-child policy theoretically gave her interviewees more choice, they recoiled from it. “At the peak of their careers, they felt their advantages slipping away — their employers became suspicious they would have another child,” says Liu.
The relaxation of the one-child policy seems to have had little impact on the gendered burden of parenting. Today’s women have lived through their share of scandals, from baby formula to vaccines — they want less to worry about. Now that local governments are coming up with a ragbag of pro-birth policies, it is time for the most radical intervention of all: building public services parents can trust.