To paraphrase the tagline of a viral ad for a Danish travel agency: Do it for China. Do it for mom.
That’s not what Chinese officials are saying, but that’s what they want.
On Thursday, China announced an end to its 35-year-old one-child policy. All Chinese couples are now allowed to have two children. It’s a move to address an economic snag: Beijing wants to ease demographic strains. China’s population is growing old. In fact, it’s aging at one of the fastest rates ever recorded. A continually shrinking workforce will have trouble with funding health care and elderly welfare. That means higher long-term costs for retirees, which may fall onto their offspring. Coupled with a decelerating economy, that’s bad news for young couples trying to start a family. Recent studies that say cigarettes might kill one in three of all young men in China make the situation look even more dire.
Originally put into practice to limit consumption of the nation’s resources, the creation of China’s one-child policy was based on conditions the nation knew in the 1970s, when its population was still under 1 billion people, most of whom lived in poverty. Since then, the rise of China has become a well-known tale, and the country is now home to the largest middle class in the world.
In recent years, the one-child policy has been relaxed. Enforcement varied from province to province, but eventually most families were allowed to have two children if neither parent had siblings, which was often the case. Two years ago, soon after assuming the Chinese Communist Party’s top post, President Xi Jinping relaxed the policy even further to include families where only one parent was an only child. Non-urban families often already had two or more children. Other exceptions were included as well, such as cases where the firstborn suffered from physical or intellectual disabilities.
The loosening of those restrictions were steps toward Thursday’s announcement. But will that spawn more happy little emperors and empresses?
The question that is on the minds of most young Chinese couples isn’t whether to have one child or two. It’s whether they should have any children at all. Beijing’s current nudge for more kids comes after disappointing application numbers for a second child by eligible families.
What’s stopping Chinese couples? The major gripe is the cost of raising a child, especially for families rooted in urban areas. General living conditions, like air pollution and food safety, in particular cases that involved infant formula laced with melamine that killed infants, weigh over couples’ decisions.
The CCP wants to bump up its urban population, matching the necessity of shifting from a production-based economy to a consumption-based one and shaking off its reliance on investment-heavy growth. In early 2014, China’s urban population accounted for nearly 54 percent of the country. By 2020, the plan is to have 60 percent of its people permanently settled in urban areas, according to Xinhua.
But relocation in China isn’t as simple as packing a bag and buying a train ticket. Social benefits are tied to a legal document called hukou, which is a household registration system that indicates personal identification and helps the central government track rural-to-urban migration. The system informs policymakers and influences how they regulate the flow of a migrating workforce. Hukou documents limit the benefits entitled to many migrants who leave rural areas to work in urbanized locations, including the education resources offered to their children, who are not allowed to attend city schools. After all, city schools receive no funding to care for the children of migrant workers.
That leaves the option of sending the children of migrants to private schools. While some leave their children at home to be cared for by grandparents, many try to keep the family together by moving to new cities as a unit despite the limitations imposed by the hukou system. For parents whose vocations typically revolve around manual labor, private school fees that edge near $1,000 per term are a little too high for their comfort. Without significant reform to this system, a population sector that contributed greatly to China’s economic growth simply cannot afford to birth more children.
So what else is behind China’s new two-child policy? It’s an effort to temper rising out-of-pocket health-care costs. Beijing wants to implement a $124 billion strategy called Healthy China 2020, which aims to offer universal health care to all of its citizens by, well, 2020. Reforms began in 2009, and seem to be on track. (In a strange twist, the February cyber-attack that targeted health insurer Anthem turned out to be conducted by Chinese hackers whose mission was to learn about the American health-care system.)
The CCP knows that taxing a dwindling workforce won’t be sufficient to fund the medical care for 1.4 billion people. Its new two-child policy doesn’t just represent the CCP’s hope for a bump in worker numbers—it would take at least two decades for those benefits to manifest—it also represents a gambit for an increase in consumers as well. Yet Chinese citizens don’t seem to be buying into the plan. Urbanites are perfectly happy to focus their efforts on a single child, or even none at all.
The message remains present: young couples need to do it for China, and do it for mom (and dad). Unfortunately, 2016 is the year of the sheep. Those born under the sheep zodiac are believed to be tender and hardworking, but also indecisive and weak-willed, and the zodiac’s popularity is eclipsed by the dragon and tiger—yet another untimely hurdle for the CCP's repopulation plans.