China Is Considering a Move That Effectively Scraps Population Control

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This photo taken on May 11, 2020 shows a staff member checking the body temperature of children before they enter a classroom at a kindergarten in Yongzhou in China's central Hunan province. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

A draft amendment submitted to China’s government on Aug. 17 proposes lifting all fines for parents who choose to have more children than the current limit of three — a move that, if approved, would essentially bring an end to more than 40 years of strict population control.

The amendment, submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, comes months after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced plans this May to boost China’s plummeting birthrate. At the time, the authorities increased the limit on childbirths per family from 2 to 3.

Beginning in 1979, the CCP had strictly implemented a one-child policy throughout the country, claiming that uncontrolled population growth would lead to catastrophic food shortages and stymie China’s development. Brutal and invasive measures, carried out by a massive Family Planning apparatus, were employed to prevent women from having more than one child.

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Their methods extended to performing compulsory abortions on expecting mothers days before birth or even killing newborn babies, as well as mandating sterilization for women who’d already produced children. Posters and signboards encouraging citizens to birth one and “resolutely” abort the rest littered China’s towns and villages.

BEIJING, CHINA: A woman cycles pass a billboard encouraging couples to have only one child, along a road leading to a village in the suburb of Beijing, 25 March 2001. (Image: GOH CHAI HIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Under current leader Xi Jinping, that policy was revised in 2016 to allow two children per couple. However, experts have warned that such policies come too late, especially in light of news that the population control lobby had used its influence to doctor national demographic statistics in the early 2000s, creating the impression that China’s population was continuing to grow rapidly and thus still required the one-child policy.

For the first time in centuries, China may no longer be the world’s most populous country. While China currently claims a population of 1.41 billion, Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, estimates that China’s true population is less than 1.3 billion — or less than the number of people living in India.

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Worse, the Chinese are aging rapidly as senior citizens are not replaced with younger people.
“By around 2035, China will be doing worse than the United States on all demographic metrics, and in terms of economic growth, owing to its declining population and fertility rates,” Yi, who is known for his book Big Country With an Empty Nest, cautioned.

China’s transformation to an urbanized, industrial economy has made young people less inclined to reproduce, given the increased costs of living and shift in social expectations. The country also faces rising unemployment among all social strata.

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  • Leo Timm is a writer and Chinese-to-English translator with years of experience covering Chinese politics, society, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.