February 1, 2013 2:53 pm

All change for China’s one-child policy?

©AFP

At least once a year, the same rumour circulates: China is about to do away with its 30-year-old one-child policy.

By the time the rumour finally becomes fact, it may make little difference to the birth rate in China, which has fallen so much that a shortage of young workers is already threatening mainland economic development, according to demographic experts. But it will make a big difference to women who, under the policy, are subjected to forced abortions.

Feng Jianmei is one of those women. In June last year, she was forced to abort her seven-month-old foetus, and pictures of her lying next to the small, bloodied corpse went viral in China and around the world.

Most people in China do not support forced abortions and the Feng Jianmei incident provoked an outcry on Chinese social media sites . Just before November’s leadership transition, a six-months pregnant mother of two in northern China’s Shandong province was bundled into a van, driven to a hospital and subjected to a chemically induced abortion, according to All Girls Allowed, a US anti-abortion group. The woman’s husband told the group that government officials later paid him Rmb40,000 ($6,400) in compensation, perhaps fearing the news could cause controversy before the transition.

No one knows how many women have been forced to abort late in their pregnancies since the one-child policy took effect in 1979, because no statistics are published. Demographers believe that recently the number has not been high because most officials prefer to fine couples after births rather than attract attention to a forced abortion – though forced abortions in the first trimester are common. But the difference in Feng Jianmei’s case was the existence of photographic evidence, which was widely circulated online – and, crucially, the fact that local media were allowed to report the incident.

“There has been no change in the one-child policy,” says He Yafu, a Chinese demographer, “but [the Feng Jianmei case] was a turning point in terms of media coverage. Before, the media was not allowed to report [such cases] but this one was widely reported.”

Perhaps unexpectedly, most people in China support the one-child policy, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Centre , which found more than three in four Chinese were in favour. Yet despite this, most Chinese demographers believe it is only a matter of time before the policy will be changed, “but we have been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a long time already”, says Cai Yong, a demographic expert at the University of North Carolina, currently a visiting scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai.

There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the government is seriously considering altering what is referred to as the one-child policy – though there are so many exceptions that many demographers call it “the 1.5-child policy” (second babies are permitted where both spouses are only children, where a rural couple’s first child is a girl or handicapped, and for ethnic minorities).

Recently a powerful government think-tank, the China Development Research Foundation, urged Beijing to allow two children for every family by 2015, according to the state’s Xinhua news agency.

“China has paid a huge political and social cost for the policy, as it has resulted in social conflict, high administrative costs and led indirectly to a long-term gender imbalance at birth,” Xinhua quoted the report as saying.

But Mr Cai points out that any decision to scrap the policy would be taken by politicians, not think-tank experts. And Mr He says there are significant bureaucratic obstacles to its removal: “The Family Planning Commission maintains it is not in the national interest, but purely in the interest of their department, which would otherwise cease to exist.”

Perhaps the most telling recent prediction came when state media interrupted normal broadcasting to announce that China’s first Nobel Prize for literature had been awarded to Mo Yan, whose latest book portrays a rural doctor who conducts abortions to enforce the policy. Many millions of Chinese will read his books, doubtless fuelling public debate about the worst aspects of the policy.

Most demographers think that it would be too late to avert a demographic crisis in China even if the policy were to be changed tomorrow. The slowdown in births has already led to a dramatic rise in the ratio of pensioners to young workers needed to support them. According to the 2010 census, the number of people over the age of 60 has risen to 13.3 per cent of the population compared with just over a tenth a decade ago; children under 14 comprise less than one-sixth of the population, down from almost a quarter 10 years ago.

And there is scant sign that most Chinese would begin having large families when and if the policy is abolished. According to the most recent figures from the National Bureau of Statistics, the estimated 2011 birth rate among women aged 20-29 was only 1.04 – though there is likely to be some underreporting – and in 2010 the overall birth rate in cities was only 0.88.

Rising affluence tends to lower birth rates in the developing world, but the policy has so thoroughly penetrated the national psyche that millions of Chinese who are permitted to bear a second child choose to have one or none at all. Perhaps proponents of the policy will finally declare victory and withdraw – before they are embarrassed by any more images of bloody foetuses circulating on the internet.

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