MERICS Blog, European Voices on China, Header


Declaring the end of China’s one-child policy as a victory for civil liberties is premature. The Chinese government continues to intervene heavily in one of life’s most personal decisions and does not intend to give up control over family planning any time soon.

Symbol: parents with one child

2016 marks the beginning of a new era for prospective parents in China. For the first time in more than three decades, the government not only allows married couples to have more than one child, but it encourages them to do so. Local authorities have started offering prolonged parental leave and an expansion of childcare facilities, and the central government is reportedly debating tax incentives to help families bear the education costs for two children.

Is China becoming the new Sweden? Not so fast. The new modern family-friendly policies cannot change the fact that China continues to regulate its citizens’ personal lives and violate their basic rights, and the government has no plan to stop doing so in the foreseeable future.

Two is the new limit

Having a third child is generally still not allowed, even though there are exceptions in certain localities and for certain population groups. Couples who do not comply with the law still risk fines and other forms of punishment. The same is true for unmarried women who are still not supposed to have children at all. The province of Guangdong even pronounced that violating the population and family planning law will generate negative points within China’s new social credit system. This means that parents who break the law will find it harder to obtain a loan or receive government services.

No other single policy has shaped and continues to shape Chinese society more than the one-child policy. The outcome of the more than three decades enforced policy are: a rapidly aging society, a socially risky male-female imbalance, a generation of spoiled but lonely “little emperors”, and millions of abandoned and unregistered children. The purpose of the revised policy is to correct the worrisome demographic trend, not to introduce new freedoms.

China’s leadership also made it clear that the current relaxation should not be viewed as the first step towards abolishing the family planning policy. Wang Pei’an, vice minister of the National Health and Family Planning Commission announced in January that official family planning restrictions would be in place for at least another 20 or even 30 years. In March, Fu Ying, spokesperson for the fourth session of China’s 12th National People’s Congress, admitted that Chinese society had to pay a high price for the one-child policy, but she also emphasized its success in curbing China’s population growth.

No legal redress for past injustices

The relaxation of the policy may come as a great relief to today’s generation of parents. But it does little for women who were subjected to forced abortions or sterilisation in the past or for parents whose only child had died. Millions of family lives were disrupted by the one-child policy. Parents lost their jobs or had to pay stupendous fines for violating the rules, and their illegally born children grew up without access to basic rights such as healthcare and education.

After the abolition of the policy, some will seek legal redress. Since China announced the abolition of the policy in October 2015, protests by parents who view themselves as its victims have risen significantly. In April 2016, several hundred middle-aged Chinese “parents of lost only children” gathered in front of the National Health and Family Planning Commission in Beijing to demand more financial support and attention. In March, a group of former government employees petitioned the State Council to let them return to jobs they lost after violating the one-child policy.

Further protests and petitions will follow, and a number of the policy’s victims will probably file lawsuits demanding compensation for financial, physical and psychological damages. However, chances to win such lawsuits or to even bring such cases before a judge are slim. Courts will try their best to avoid creating precedents that could trigger a flood of similar cases.

Illegally born children remain outsiders

On January 11, the State Council ordered local authorities to register illegally born children in retrospect and without preconditions. However, shifting the implementation process from the national level to the provinces leaves ample space for local interpretation. The violation of the one-child policy was a lucrative source of income for local family planning bureaus. Why stop demanding payment of a hefty fee for registering a second child? This is what happened in Zhejiang province, among other places, and this is why many parents still hesitate to register their second child. The lack of a transparent national implementation process shows that it’s not the government’s priority to provide citizens with clear information on their rights.

China’s family planning policy continues to be a clear violation of the right to self-determination as defined by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which China ratified in 2001. The Covenant also includes the right to education and the right to work, which unregistered Chinese children cannot claim. When China celebrates Children’s Day on June 1, these children will watch the festivities from the sidelines once again.

So while the recent changes are a step in the right direction, there is no reason for blind optimism. The policy shift was dictated by China’s lopsided demographics. The Chinese leadership has obvious economic reasons to incentivise higher birth rates in the future, but it does not see the need to address past societal injustices. A genuine liberalisation of China’s family policy requires more than replacing the one-child policy with a two-child policy.