Many in India lamented in the 1970s that the government didn’t have the guts to follow China in limiting couples to a single child. Concern peaked after the end of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, her electoral defeat and the start of Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government. As Raj Narain, the man who defeated her, said when he changed traditional hospital terminology, the word “Emergency” gave him the shudders. The political class was convinced nasbandi had cost Congress the election. That was the end of effective family planning in India.
Now that China has at last abandoned the one-child norm, Indians can think again about reviving the family planning campaign as a genuine tool for social and economic growth. The lesson is that persuasion and instruction are more relevant in the long run than coercion. India could have done with 400 million fewer people, which is the gain China claims from the one-child policy. But the gain would have been more lasting if the reduction in numbers had been willing. “This is a policy that has led to millions of human rights abuses over the last few decades,” an Amnesty International researcher in Hong Kong says of China’s policy. “Countless women were forced to have abortions, and forced to have sterilisation procedures and contraception methods they didn’t want.”
It meant policing bedrooms and invasive control of people’s private lives. Female employees were regularly examined at their work place for evidence of menstruation to detect signs of unauthorised pregnancies. No assessment can ignore the pain all this caused – forced sterilisations and abortions, infanticide, prison sentences and black market in baby trading – or the psychological scars of a traumatic experience.
To begin at the beginning, after the Long March and having consolidated his hold over the country, Mao Zedong encouraged Chinese women to bear more children. But like many Indians, his successors feared that a huge population would be an impediment to economic growth. Systematic controls were introduced in 1979, only a year after Deng Xiaoping initiated market-led economic reforms in 1978. Urban couples were restricted to one child. Rural couples could have two if the first was a girl. Ethnic minorities like Tibetans were also allowed two.
The lesson from China’s abandoning of the one-child family norm is that persuasion and instruction are more relevant in the long run than coercion. India could have done with 400 million fewer people, which is the gain China claims from the one-child policy. But the gain would have been more lasting if the reduction in numbers had been willing.
A slight relaxation was announced in 2013. A couple was then allowed a second child if one parent was an only child. But it could hardly be said that millions of Chinese parents rushed to take advantage of the new permission.
Beijing claims these draconian measures mitigated social stresses, eased shortages of food, housing, medicine and other scarce resources, and enabled China to drag itself out of poverty and become the world’s second largest economy (after the US), on the basis of GDP. But there were unforeseen side effects too. A counter-productive demographic effect is an excess of 25 million single males, the acute shortage of brides holding the possibility of social unrest. The one-child policy may have ended, but its impact will last a long time even if secretiveness and censorship conceal the results.
The ageing of China’s population is another result. Whereas, thanks to free procreation (combined with improved health, hygiene, diet and sanitation), India has a young population, about 33 per cent of the Chinese are aged more than 50. The total population of working-age Chinese declined in 2012 which means that fewer Chinese of working age are supporting an ageing population. China-watchers fear that a serious labour shortage darkens the horizon.
The one-child policy also encouraged the emergence of what is known as Little Emperor Syndrome. Little Emperors are the millions of young people who were only children and were therefore spoilt by the lavish attention of doting parents and the absence of sibling rivalry. Whether or not he was pampered, Xi Jinping belongs to this privileged elite in a society that does not allow unmarried couples and single parents to have children. A mother of one who insisted on having a second child because she and her husband felt their son needed company is still fighting a fine of the equivalent of ₤40,000. Refusal to pay will make a non-person of the second child, a girl. Her name will not be registered in the official records, and she will not be able to have hospital treatment, travel by train, use a library or any other facility that demands the production of an identity card. A non-person or un-person doesn’t exist officially.
The new relaxation was announced in late October, at the end of a four-day closed door meeting of the Chinese Communist Party’s top brass. It was part of the strategy for growth during the 2016-2020 five-year plan. According to observers, CCTV, the state-run broadcasting network with 100 million viewers, played down the news. Clearly, Beijing does not want either the domestic audience or the outside world to expect spectacular change.
This is probably a wise course, and shows the leadership hasn’t forgotten the disappointing outcome of the 2013 relaxation. China has had a surfeit of boastful slogans that either didn’t yield dividend or were actually counter-productive. The one-child norm has become so much the accepted pattern that it is not easy to think of the regimented Chinese easily abandoning it. The Chinese have also become addicted to material comforts since Deng’s time, and not many parents may be willing to sacrifice the time and resources needed to bring up a second child. Satisfaction can lead to selfishness, especially since the Chinese no longer have the cultural urge to yearn for sons. In Shanghai, for instance, only about 30 per cent of young parents are expected to exercise their option in favour of a second child.
According to independent Chinese demographers, the new move will produce a maximum of three million annual births which is not enough to make a great difference to the current prediction that China’s population, which now stands at 1.3 billion, will reach a peak of just under 1.5 billion in 2030 or 3035. Some even argue that social and economic factors would have combined to bring fertility rates down to the present level even without the harshly enforced one-child norm. But it may not have happened as quickly.
What seems more or less certain now, according to the experts, is that the latest reform will not succeed in the short term in raising China’s fertility rate to 1.8 children per woman. That is what the government wants, against the present rate of about 1.5. To that extent there can be no quick or easy solution to the problem of a depleting labour force. That’s a danger India doesn’t face but the pressure on all our public services does stress the need to reduce numbers. At the same time, China’s experience reminds us there is no alternative to a humane process of education and persuasion that convinces people it is in their own interest to have fewer children.