The gradual abandonment of the one-child policy allows China to tackle demographic, corruption, security, and economic challenges in one deft swoop; defusing discontent and saving face for Beijing.
Last week’s announcement by Beijing that it will be phasing out its long-standing ‘one-child policy’ created headlines around the world. The one-child policy has been a fixture of China’s domestic policy for decades, and became so (in)famous that it remains one of few things about Chinese politics that the general public can recall offhand.
While commentators in the West are heralding the long overdue demise of a draconian and anachronistic policy, this is not how the issue is being presented by Beijing.
The phasing out of the one-child policy is not being billed by Beijing as an about-face, but rather a reform, since the original goal of instigating a precipitous decline in population growth has been achieved. Moreover, an outright cancellation would imply that the central government made a mistake in the first place.
Instead the one-child policy has become the latest target of Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive. Fortunately for Beijing, the policy also touches on economic and stability concerns, making its reform a multifaceted boon for Beijing.
Population growth and political graft
China’s fertility rate has plummeted from more than 6.16 live births per woman in the mid-1960s to just 1.66 births per woman in 2012; far below the replacement rate of 2.1. This decline was brought about via the strict enforcement of the one-child policy; an undertaking that employs 500,000 officials and led to 336 million legally mandated abortions (not including millions of ‘unofficial’ ones) as well as 197 million sterilizations.
The policy created an entire shadow economy consisting of black market abortion clinics, forged birth certificates, and fake medical records. Then there are also the illegal sales of contraceptive and abortion pills, underground pregnancy tests, black market human egg rackets, and the infamous fetal gender tests. Add to this all the bribes to officials to look the other way, forged government records and extortion by local authorities, and you have one of the largest sources of corruption in the country.
The one-child policy is a state program with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members often the loci of corruption. With Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, the program is naturally a prime target, as the president has made it clear that he will not spare party organs and institutions from corruption audits.
For decades local officials have rigidly enforced birth quotas, often seizing the property of those found contravening the law, as well as using ‘social maintenance fees’ to plug holes in municipal and provincial budgets.
Consequently, by tackling the one-child policy and reforming it into a two-child policy, the government is seeking to cut corruption off at the source; particularly when it comes to graft surrounding second children – one of the main causes fuelling rampant corruption in the program.
One-child policy spawns demographic security concerns
As result of the one-child policy, it is estimated that there are some 13 million ‘ghost citizens’ that exist without official documentation due to the bribing of officials. The concept of any undocumented citizens, let alone millions is a security risk that Beijing cannot tolerate, as seen with China’s strict rural / urban residency permits.
Furthermore, while rural residents have been allowed a second child if the first was a girl, there has long been strict enforcement of the one-child policy in rural areas. Conversely, as China’s urban population becomes richer, many (relatively) wealthy urbanites have increasingly been buying their way out of the program. This trend in turn aggravates the already tense rural-urban divide in China. This relationship is one of the major sources of domestic instability, and one which is always top of mind for Beijing.
Another major concern for Beijing is the gender imbalance caused by more than four decades of the one-child policy, as the traditional preference for boys, and gender-based abortions have created a grossly distorted gender ratio in China.
With a deficit of some 40 million women due to gender based abortions, the government faces a demographic time bomb as millions of young Chinese men will be unable to find a spouse. Millions of sexually frustrated, lonely, young men is a recipe for unrest.
If said men recognize that their plight is due to government policies and become politicized, Beijing faces an existential crisis.
After-all the government can only do so much – such as boosting military and para-military recruitment – to re-direct all that errant testosterone to serve, rather than threaten Beijing.
Policy reform ticks all the boxes for Beijing
By reforming the one-child policy, the central government can address widespread discontent with the program by framing reform in anti-corruption and economic terms; perspectives that both strengthen the legitimacy of the CCP. Firstly by framing reform in an anti-corruption light, the government can ease restrictions while diverting discontent away from the central planning that created institutional corruption in the first place.
Instead corrupt local and provincial officials will be culled to satisfy public discontent and demonstrate that any excesses were due to ‘bad apples’.
Successive relaxations in policy will also not result in a return to pre-policy birth rates as the dampening effects of economic development will continue to ensure small families.
This combined with the fact that one child families have become a social norm, will allow Beijing to remove the source of discontent without having to worry about demographic up-ticks necessitating back-tracking further down the road: a perfect face-saving plan for the CCP.
Furthermore, by relaxing the policy the government can demonstrate how it has prudently guided a changing China through its successive socio-economic phases.
The post-Mao CCP has demonstrated to the populace that it is nothing if not pragmatic, willing to tailor policy to serve growth above all else.
The one-child policy was instituted to prevent too much surplus labour and the attendant unrest it produces. Now as China moves towards a consumption based economic model, it needs a stable growth rate to ensure adequate numbers of consumers to fuel its next growth model.
Consequently, reforming the one-child policy is in many ways a one-size fits all salve for a host of China’s systemic challenges.