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Looser policy fails to trigger baby boom

By Chen Yi | 2015-01-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A boy plays football alone in a community in Beijing. China ushered in a new era for its national family planning policy to allow married couples to have a second child if at least one spouse is an only child. However, one year on there hasn't been the baby boom predicted by experts.


China ushered in a new era for its national family planning policy at the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in November 2013 by approving the decision to allow married couples to have a second child if at least one spouse is an only child. The decision marked the adoption of the “two-child policy” in China.

However, one year on there hasn’t been the baby boom predicted by experts. According to statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, more than 11 million couples were eligible to have a second child in 2014. However, only 700,000 couples applied to have a second child.

This result defied many experts’ predictions. But some claim it is too early to assess the new policy’s impact on China’s birth rate, saying it will take at least two or three years to effectively evaluate its influence.


Baby boom backfires
The “two-child policy” reflects the central government’s intention to adjust the family planning policy in the 21st century. The policy makes it possible for couples to have two children if at least one parent is from a one-child family.

Since the 1970s, China’s national family planning policy has been used to rein in its surging population. It became a basic state policy in 1978, preventing an estimated 400 million births since its inception and significantly reducing the negative impact of excessive population growth on resources and the environment. Population growth should conform to economic and social development, and China’s relatively low birth rate has resulted in problems including a rapidly aging population and labor shortage. These circumstances paved the way for China to launch its “two-child policy.”

Despite the loosened policy, most couples aren’t rushing to have a second child. “While we are worrying about an impending baby boom, couples in society actually show minimal willingness in having a second child,” said Gu Baochang, a professor at the Population Development Studies Center at Renmin University of China.

Currently, China’s population accounts for one-fifth of the world’s total, but its number of newborns accounts for only 12 percent of the global total. China’s birth rate is also very low compared to most developed countries. The “two-child policy” is yet to increase the national birth rate as estimated. Over the next decade, the number of women aged between 24 and 28 in China will decrease from 63.45 million to 36.4 million, meaning the number of newborns will at least halve over the next 40 years irrespective of the national family planning policy.

Many scholars claim the birth rate is affected by two factors: the number of women eligible under the policy to have a second child, and their willingness to actually have a second child. Obviously, the impact of the latter cannot be ignored because women will only give birth to a second child if they are willing to do so.


Cost dilemma
The lower-than-expected number of parents having a second child could reflect changing perceptions about childbirth among those with higher education, particularly in urban areas. Most couples eligible to have a second child live in urban areas, where education and housing are expensive. High costs of raising a child in the city could explain their reluctance to have a second child.

“High living costs and fierce competition for jobs have led to fewer women wanting the second baby,” said Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor at Renmin University of China, adding that other problems including food safety scandals and pollution also increase many couples’ worries.

So, what does it cost to raise a child? Xu Anqi, a research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, wrote a report titled “The Cost of Child-bearing: Structure, Changes and Optimization during the Transformation Period” that found the total cost of raising a child from infancy to the age of 16 is 250,000 yuan ($40,169). If the cost of a child’s higher education is taken into account, the figure swells to 480,000 yuan ($77,117).

China’s current fertility rate is between 1.5 and 1.6. Guo Zhigang, a professor at the Department of Sociology at Peking University, said China should strive for a rate of between 1.8 and 1.9. 

“Apart from the economic cost, other issues including time, opportunity and physical demands should be considered. Society should share the cost of childbearing through multiple mechanisms, including improving welfare and guaranteeing parental leave,” said Guo.

Many experts claim that reluctance among couples for a second child reflects anxiety in society. The decision to have a second child is not only an issue among couples, but also for population development.


Loosening over time
In light of the current situation, many people claim that it is necessary to fully ease the national family planning policy.

China Youth Daily’s social survey center recently conducted a poll of 2,052 people that found nearly 48.5 percent of respondents support applying the “two-child policy” to all couples.

Zhai Zhenwu, a professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China, said that it is too early to say how the new policy will affect China’s birth rate. He estimated that the number of couples applying to have a second child will reach 1.2 million by March or April 2015, which matches with predictions for the same period in 2014.

“The family planning policy will inevitably be adjusted if the birth rate does not obviously increase in the next one or two years,” said Shi Renbing, director of the Population and Policy Institute at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, Hubei Province.