Chinese Communist Party’s three-child policy won’t work. It doesn’t make economic sense

Zou Xiaoqi plays with her two year old son, Shanghai | Bloomberg

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Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced a “temporary” family planning measure in 1978 that exemplified China’s societal framework – the one-child policy. That “temporary measure” continued until 2015, when China allowed couples to have two children. On Monday, ahead of Children’s Day on 1 June, the Chinese Communist Party announced its latest policy change in family planning — couples can now have three children. But the announcement is unlikely to encourage people to have more children. The rising cost of raising a family stands in the way.

“Further optimising the birth policy, implementing the policy of one couple can have three children and supporting measures are conducive to improving China’s population structure, implementing the national strategy of actively coping with population ageing, and maintaining China’s human resource endowment advantages,” said the announcement by the Politburo of the CCP’s Central Committee.

For three decades since the introduction of the one-child policy, China strictly enforced family planning measures. People were made to pay hefty fines while many lost jobs for having a second child. Thousands of women were subjected to forced sterilisations and abortions. The social stigma associated with having a second child remained strong.

The latest policy change comes after China recently announced slowing population growth over the past decade. In April, the Financial Times, citing sources, reported that China will see its first population decline in 60 years. The National Bureau of Census later refuted the Financial Times story while announcing that China’s population, although at a slower rate, will continue to grow. The Bureau pegged China’s population at 1.41178 billion.

Also read: China to allow couples to have a third child to boost its falling birth rate

Bad timing?

“The three-child policy is here!” was the number one trend on Google-like search engine Baidu as well as on Twitter-like social media platform Weibo. The trend was viewed 3.73 billion times and received 5,77,000 comments on Weibo. The story was the top trend on all major Chinese state media outlets. “What kind of supporting measures are needed in the third-child era” was another leading trend on Weibo.

“The whole society should take action to take good care of children’s eyes and let them have a bright future,” President Xi Jinping was quoted as saying in the CCP’s People’s Daily just a day after the announcement. But the publication didn’t mention the latest policy change. The story was featured on the front page of the publication’s print edition.

“When we were students, we learned that “family planning is the basic national policy”. Can you imagine that one day the Party Central Committee will introduce a policy to encourage us to have three children? Three children are still too expensive,” wrote Chinese journalist Michael Anti, founder of Caixin Globus.

“To tell you the truth, what we want is real money subsidies, not the superficial encouragement. Why is it that we can’t have three children? It’s because I can’t afford it. A child from birth to work, involving education, health care, housing, every step faces a problem. Young people can’t even take care of themselves. How can they still have the heart to nurture the next generation,” said Zhang Fang, a prominent Weibo user. Fang called for practical actions to support the young generation rather than “sloganeering”.

Weibo users also pointed out the “996” work culture as an impediment to having and raising children. “996” refers to work hours from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week. It is usually seen in China’s big metropolitan cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen or Guangzhou.

Also read: Baby shortage prompts China’s unwed mothers to fight for change

Will it work?

Over the years, the stigma of having an additional child has reduced, but people had to pay high “social support fees” as fines for reproducing more children. This ‘fee’ acts as a source of income for the local party officials. A family in China paid more than $150,000 in ‘social support fees’ to have seven children. Chinese people can now have as many children as they want as long as they pay the fine – meant for the ultra-rich.

WeChat and Weibo users discussed if the people who were forced to pay fines to have additional children will be reimbursed by the government.

The 2015 policy change allowing couples to have two children didn’t result in the desired outcome.

“After implementing the two-child policy, the number of newborns was higher than before the policy was introduced but showed a downward trend. The adjustment of the family planning policy alone could not keep on contributing to the demographic,” said a recent study.

The three-child policy stops short of removing the artificial limit of having three children.

“Bureaucratic inertia. Remove all limits, and a lot of logic for the existence of the entire population planning apparatus disappears. That creates complications in terms of explaining why certain cadres need to be employed, why the party wants to maintain the limit of three children,” said Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law and politics.

Also read: Xi’s China has big tech and science plans. But is looking worldwide for talent

Xi’s agenda

China promotes a different family planning policy in Xinjiang province, where people are encouraged to have fewer children. Investigative reports reveal a draconian campaign to reduce the Muslim population of Xinjiang through gruesome measures. That would also partly explain the CCP not completely doing away with the limit.

Xi Jinping, in recent times, has spoken about relying on homegrown talent to tackle the challenges China faces in the fields of science and technology. China is charting a course of reducing dependence on the rest of the world for innovation and human resources. A smaller pool of talent in the workforce would slow down innovation and growth of the economy.

For now, the Chinese Communist Party’s centralised planning continues to retain Soviet-style shtick over women’s reproductive rights. But having a third child, in reality, is a very costly affair for most Chinese people. Dropping the stringent accounting infatuation might be in the best interest of the Communist Party.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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