Written by Jackie Sheehan.

China’s ageing population and worsening dependency ratio are the driving force behind the decision at last week’s Fifth Plenum of the 18th CCPCC to allow all married couples to have a second child. The November 2013 decision to extend the possibility of having two children to couples where one spouse was an only child has not resulted in nearly as many additional births as expected, reducing the fears of some local authorities that any significant change to the rules would result in a baby boom placing severe strain on schools and other services.

If anything, China may soon need to start encouraging its citizens to have more children, not maintain restrictions on their fertility, as Stuart Gietel-Basten has noted in these pages.

But the family-planning regulations in force in one form or another since 1978 have not been controversial just because they have contributed to an ageing population, generated demand for trafficked wives and children through a large gender imbalance over two generations, and may not even have been necessary to reduce overall fertility levels, especially in urban China.

They have also been notorious for generating abuses of citizens’ rights by those charged with enforcing them, along with huge amounts of money, so far unaccounted for, in “social compensation fees” for unauthorised births. Zhejiang lawyer Wu Zhousui was one of a group of activists who in 2013 revealed that most if not all of the ¥16.5 billion collected in social compensation fees during 2012 had been retained by local family-planning commissions and often paid out to staff, rather than being used to provide extra social services. The government admitted that no audit had been carried out of how the money was spent “in recent years” (read: ever).

Couples who do want a second child will have to hold that thought at least until the new policy is passed into law at next March’s National People’s Congress and starts to be written into provincial regulations. With the previous reform, some of China’s most populous provinces, such as Henan, held back from issuing new regulations for seven or eight months, and may opt to do so again to delay the onset of any local baby boom. Only when we see the provincial regulations in detail will we be able to tell how much of the present system, complete with its violent and coercive elements, will be retained.

The policy change will not be retrospective, so any women already pregnant with an unauthorised second child will still be liable for the usual penalties. For others, for the maximum amount of human misery to be averted within this policy change, the measures to look for are: (1) the abolition of any requirement for a minimum interval between first and second births; (2) the abolition of the requirement for a birth permit to be obtained for the second child before its conception; (3) the ending of the requirement for one or other parent of two children to undergo compulsory sterilization; and (4) an end to treating all births out of wedlock, even the first, as unauthorized and applying particularly harsh financial penalties in these cases.

The November 2013 reforms made no difference to any of these. The birth of a child to a couple who have not legally registered their marriage is penalized with a fine of four to six times local average annual per capita income in Fujian province, a much higher multiple than applies to unauthorized births within marriage, and although the exact sums vary, the pattern of completely unaffordable fines for births out of wedlock is a general one.

Depending on the extent of the changes in new provincial regulations, there may soon be much less for family-planning officials to do, and the whole enforcement industry with its half a million staff will eventually need to be wound down. There are already signs of a struggle to make quota in parts of rural China where most residents of child-bearing age have already migrated elsewhere, leading to older couples being targeted for sterilization to make up the numbers.

In an August 2013 case in Yunnan, a 59-year-old man who had been taken away for sterilization died in unexplained circumstances, with his body dumped outside the door of his house for his family to find. The family said that “authorities had targeted him for years, demanding that he be sterilized and that he pay a fine of 10,000 yuan for exceeding the birth quota”, even though he had not, in fact, ever breached family-planning rules.

While diverting that many people to something, anything, more productive and socially useful would be a positive development, it is hard to see how family-planning officials’ current work-style would transfer easily to other sectors, based on some of the mottoes quoted by legal activist and whistle-blower Chen Guangcheng at a recent Congressional-Executive Commission on China hearing: “In Sichuan: Anyone avoiding sterilization must be put in custody; anyone avoiding sterilization must be punished by bulldozing their house; anyone avoiding abortion shall surrender their cattle and house. In Anhui: We’d rather see ten more tombs than a single baby born alive. In Jiangsu: We’d rather see a river of blood than a single baby born alive. In Guangxi: An IUD must be secured after the first birth; sterilization must follow the second; the third and fourth must be killed. In Shandong: We’d rather see a broken home than a collapsed country.”

It was always hard to justify these violent and abusive “local methods” even if you believed in the anti-poverty case for state-imposed family-planning restrictions. Now that it has all but been conceded that further pressure to hold down the birth rate is unnecessary, keeping any element of the existing regulations in place will only tend to drive enforcing officials to further excesses as they strive for maximum gain while the system lasts. Better to abolish the whole thing now, consigning to the past a policy which has already blighted the lives of millions in China.

Professor Jackie Sheehan is Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork. Image Credit: CC by C.K. Koay/Flickr.