As with the Arab Spring, the revolution in Syria and other tectonic social movements over the past five years, China’s decision to reverse its decades-long one-child policy may have begun with a single moment.
In 2012, a chilling image of a mother lying on a hospital bed with the fetus of her son on her chest went viral. The woman, Feng Jianmei, was seven months pregnant when government officials forced her to having an abortion when she could not pay a fine of $6,300 for failing to get an official permit for a second child.
Pressure to change the policy had been mounting for years, but as the Washington Post reported yesterday, that image, shared widely on social media, galvanized public opinion that something had to change.
The real forces that resulted in scrapping the policy, at least according to the official party line, were less emotionally charged: money and demographics. As Xinhua, the state news agency reported, China is dealing with a “demographic time bomb,” which is another way of saying that its population is aging (and retiring) and its emerging economy needs younger workers, and more of them. As Gizmodo noted, “the party line is that the policy played an essential part in controlling the country’s population, and hence, stimulating GDP growth per capita.” Or, as the government maintains, “it prevented millions from being born in to poverty.”
As the American Enterprise Institute noted, “China’s fertility rate slipped below replacement rate back in the early 1990s and now the country is facing the beginnings of a labor shortage. Over the next 20 years, China’s working age population is expected to shrink by nearly 60 million.”
So will the new two-child policy make a difference? Yes and no, experts say. For starters, there’s no guarantee the Chinese will start having more kids. Even when the one-policy rate was introduced in 1979, fertility rates had already fallen dramatically, according to Gizmodo, and couples who are already eligible to have two children in urban areas are choosing to have one. Birth rates also naturally drop as societies become more wealthy and modernize, Jeff Spross at The Week recently noted, “especially as they bring their female populations into greater social, educational and civic equality. That appears to be the main driver of China’s low fertility.”
Still, the new policy, along with other factors, should result in a “mini baby boom” in the short term, which could spur consumption in China, but also put more pressure on the government by raising the number of people dependent on entitlement programs. And while the new policy could offset the decline in the working age population in the long term, it’s not a silver bullet. In fact, some experts say investing in technology, education and heath care will be more important.
“What drives China’s future the next two or three decades, it is not the population, Fred Hu, the founder of a Chinese investment firm, told the New York Times. “It is whether future leaders can continue to push ahead political and economic reforms.”
It’s also unclear how the new policy will affect the day-to-day lives of Chinese families. As the Washington Post noted, the new law still limits the number of children a couple can have to two, leaving “a vast enforcement apparatus” riddled with corruption in place.
“Whether they are having one or two children, they will have to have a birth permit for each child, and they will face coercion, unless they are rich enough to bypass the limits,” Reggie Littlejohn, founder of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, told the Washington Post. “Poor people have to obey the law and rich people have to buy their way out of it.”
As the Post noted, a “powerful, violent system” has grown around the one-child policy, creating a climate of fear that lead to “forced sterilizations and abortions, infanticide and a dramatic gender imbalance.” In 2012 alone, official statistics show 6.7 million women in china were forced to have abortions.
“On the level of simple human decency, China’s abandonment of the one-child policy is a huge win,” Jeff Spross wrote in The Week. “But the country still effectively has a two-child policy. Any Chinese family that wants more kids still faces quotas and surveillance and the possibility of forced abortions.”
While the long-term implications of the policy shift are still unclear, the stock market is betting on a baby boom. Stocks on everything from Japanese based diaper companies to Hong Kong stroller makers jumped with the announcement, meaning that the policy shift could “prove a boon for a raft of companies across Asia.”