China is inching closer to abandoning its decades-long policy of birth restrictions, as its slowing fertility rate and rapidly greying population threaten long-term growth prospects, analysts and researchers say.
The phrase “family planning ” has been dropped from China’s 14th five-year plan and its 2035 vision, according to details of the policy blueprint released by the ruling Communist Party this week. Instead, China will “improve birth policy” to make it more “inclusive”.
The omission sends a clear message that the policy, which was a fundamental part of previous five-year plans, is on the way out and Chinese couples will soon have the right to decide how many children to have, analysts said.
Last year, the number of newborns in China sank to the lowest level since the Great Chinese Famine six decades ago. Mothers in China gave birth to 14.65 million babies in 2019, down from 15.23 million in 2018, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
China, the world’s most populous country, dropped its one-child policy in 2016 to allow couples to have two children, although it has proven unsuccessful in boosting births.
“The government is not explicitly saying ‘stop family planning’, but it is letting the policy fade out,” said Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a long-time critic of China’s family planning policy.
Yi, who is the author of Big Country with an Empty Nest, said next year would be a “historic turning point”, after which “the state’s hand in restricting births will be withdrawn”.
“In the future, the government’s role will be to protect the right to have babies, not to infringe on that human right.”
China’s birth rate falls to near 60-year low, with 2019 producing fewest babies since 1961
China implemented its controversial one-child policy four decades ago and enforced it ruthlessly through forced abortions, mandatory sterilisation, infanticide and hefty fines. Zhang Yimou, a prominent Chinese film director, was fined about US$1.2 million (S$1.6 million) for breaking the rule in 2014.
Huang Wenzheng and Liang Jianzhang, two Chinese demographers who have written extensively on the nation‘s birth rates, said an “inclusive” birth policy might allow each couple to have up to four children.
It might also abolish discriminatory policies against single parents and children born out of wedlock, they wrote in an article published this week.
To encourage new births, the government could go a step further and provide subsidies to parents based on the number of children they have, the researchers added.
A government survey in 2017 found Chinese women of childbearing age on average planned to have 1.75 children, showing that even if China lifted restrictions its birth rate would remain low.
New births are expected to plunge this year because the coronavirus has postponed plans for marriages and births.
Ningbo , a port city on China’s east coast with 8.5 million residents, predicted in September births may tumble 27 per cent in 2020 from a year earlier.
China is also contending with a rapidly ageing population. The China Development Research Foundation said in a report earlier this year that one in four Chinese would be above 65 years old by 2035. The ratio could increase to 28 per cent by 2050 – similar to Japan’s demographic picture today, according to the World Bank.
In the 14th five-year plan for 2021-25, China will implement a “national strategy” to cope with its ageing problem by “tapping the human resources of senior ages and developing a silver hair economy”.
Still, some scholars debate whether China has too many people.
Li Tie, a former senior official from National Development and Reform Commission, the economic planning agency, said China‘s labour force was facing long-term oversupply, rather than a shortage. He said the government should focus on boosting incomes, education and skills of people.
Less than 20 per cent of more than 242 Chinese economists surveyed last month by the demographer Liang and Chinese news portal Sina.com believed China was overpopulated. More than 70 per cent supported fully liberalising birth policy.
China began its seventh national census this month to find a more detailed picture of its demographic situation.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.