China hints at plans to ease policy of one-child families

A think-tank has recommended that families be allowed two children. Picture: Reuters
A think-tank has recommended that families be allowed two children. Picture: Reuters
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A CHINESE government think-tank is urging the country’s leaders to start phasing out its one-child policy immediately and allow two children for every family by 2015, a daring proposal to do away with the unpopular policy.

Some demographers see the timeline put forward by the China Development Research Foundation as a bold move by the body close to the central leadership. But others warn that the gradual approach, if implemented, would still be insufficient to help correct the problems that China’s strict birth limits have created.

Xie Meng, a press affairs official with the foundation, said the final version of the report would be released “in a week or two”. But Chinese state media has seen advance copies. The official Xinhua News Agency yesterday said the foundation recommends a two-child policy in some provinces from this year and a nationwide two-child policy by 2015 and proposes that all birth limits be dropped by 2020.

“China has paid a huge political and social cost for the policy, as it has resulted in social conflict, high administrative costs and led indirectly to a long-term gender imbalance at birth,” Xinhua said, citing the report.

Known to many as the one-child policy, China’s actual rules are more complicated. The government limits most urban couples to one child, and allows two children for rural families, if their first-born is a girl.

There are numerous other exceptions, including looser rules for ethnic minority families and a two-child limit for parents who are both single.

Cai Yong, an assistant professor of sociology and visiting scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai, said the report holds extra weight because the think-tank is under the State Council, China’s cabinet. He said he found it remarkable that state-backed demographers were willing to publicly propose such a detailed schedule and plan on how to get rid of China’s birth limits. “That tells us at least that policy change is inevitable,” said Mr Cai.

Adding to the uncertainty is a once-in-a-decade leadership transition that kicks off on 8 November, which will see a new tier of top leaders installed by spring. The transition could keep population reform on the back burner or changes might be rushed through to help burnish the reputations of president Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao as they depart.

Many ordinary Chinese see the birth limits as outdated, a relic of the era when housing, jobs and food were provided by the state. “It has been 30 years since our planned economy was liberalised,” said Wang Yi, the owner of a shop that sells textiles online. “So why do we still have to plan our population?”

Though open debate about the policy has flourished in state media and on the internet, leaders have expressed a desire to maintain the status quo.

President Hu said last year that China would maintain its strict family planning policy to keep the birth rate low and other officials have said that no changes were expected until at least 2015.

Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy and an expert on China’s demographics, contributed research material to the foundation’s report, but has yet to see the full text. He welcomed the gist of the document that he’s seen in state media.

It says the government “should return the rights of reproduction to the people”, he said. “That’s very bold.”