China’s One-Child Policy Just Changed, But Is It Enough?

The Chinese government is worried that birth rates are too low.
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Sophie Caldecott
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The Chinese government is worried that birth rates are too low.

Yesterday news broke that China’s infamous one-child policy will be altered to allow families to have two children, and the world is getting all hot under the collar about the overpopulation versus the social and economic problems of low birthrates all over again. Can we put this macro-level debate to one side for just a moment, though, and look at how this news affects women and individual families?

The one-child policy was first implemented by China’s Communist government back in the 1970s, when leaders decided that China’s growing population threatened economic growth. Modern theories now blame an aging population and workforce for economic hardship, and the newly released official summary of the altered regulations says that the government is revising its one-child policy in an effort to “counter the aging of the population.” But despite the Chinese government having already eased some of the restrictions back in 2013, the country hasn’t seen much of an increase in the birthrate.

The particularly interesting thing to me here is that, as the New York Times reports, “most people interviewed [about the proposed change to the one-child policy] voiced reluctance to take on a second child.” It’s especially expensive to have children in China, and wherever you live and whatever your financial situation, having children always requires a certain amount of self-sacrifice. It seems like China’s one-child policy has been more successful in its goal of restricting population growth than anyone predicted; from its origins as a policy that imposed harsh fines and sometimes even forced abortions on those who conceived more than one child, a low birthrate has become such a cultural norm that it looks like the government can’t easily just switch it back, even if it wants to.

Perhaps what the Chinese government doesn’t realize is that to encourage people to have babies, you have to create a culture that accepts and even welcomes children and families in more ways than simply permitting them to exist. A Danish vacation company’s hilarious ad campaign urging couples to “Do it for Denmark,” i.e. have more babies, is trying a different tactic to raise the country’s chronically low birthrate by offering prizes to couples who conceive. But even this misses the mark; evidence shows that these incentives rarely work.

One-child, two-child, or indeed any-child policies often result in females being valued so little that baby girls end up flushed down the toilet, which tragically happened in China back in August. In some parts of the world, government policies aren’t even necessary: In places such as India where gendercide is shockingly prevalent, the culture experiences something of a self-imposed child policy—one that privileges men over women, who are perceived as having more economic and social value.

I hope that China’s loosening reproductive policies result in higher cultural status for women, but I hope that someday soon there won’t be a policy about how many children women are “allowed” to have at all. And, while I’m dreaming big, I also hope that cultures all around the world can start reserving judgment and valuing people of all kinds, with or without children, and families of all sizes.

Photo Credit: Getty Images