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Chinese couples cautiously consider dividends of new family planning policy

By Kimeng Hilton Ndukong (People's Daily Online)    13:13, November 01, 2017

For many couples, a second child provides companionship to the first. Photo by National Health and Family Planning Commission

An increasing number of married Chinese couples are taking advantage of a new family planning policy that came into force after 40 years of strict birth controls to keep the huge population under check. The universal two-child policy, which took effect on January 1, 2016, allows about 90 million more couples to have second babies.

Over 17 million births in 2016

The National Health and Family Planning Commission reported that the number of births in 2016 reached 17.86 million, the highest since 2000, and 11.5 per cent more than in 2015. More than 45 per cent of the babies were born to couples who already had at least one child. The proportion was about 30 per cent before 2013.

However, the previous one-child policy did not necessarily mean that a married couple was limited to a child each. Rather, the policy allowed couples to have two or more children depending amongst others on their ethnic background, geographical location, if any of the spouses was an only child and the first child was female, etc, explained Yang Juhua, a Professor of Demography with the Centre for Population and Development Studies, School of Sociology and Demography, Renmin University of China, Beijing.

Chinese women have generally welcomed the new policy. “Government encourages couples to have second children by developing family-friendly policies and offering childcare assistance like nursery homes and kindergarten for babies under three,” Prof. Yang explained.

Careful consideration of options

However, a survey published in December 2016 by the All-China Women’s Federation and the National Innovation Centre for Assessment of Basic Education Quality showed that out of 10,300 families with children 15-years-old across the country, 53.3 per cent expressed no desire to have a second child. Only 20.5 per cent were willing to do so, while 26.2 per cent were uncertain. Those from developed regions and cities expressed less willingness to have second baby.

The key factors influencing the decision to have a second baby were the availability of public services such as education, medical care, health and living environment. Others were kindergartens and schools, the quality of infant products, the living environment and access to medical treatment. Parents said they wanted to have a second child mainly because they believe children bring happiness to the family. And a second child made the family complete as the new baby will provide companionship to the first child.

According to Yang, urban residents see child upbringing as expensive. This is especially true with professional women. Also, the opportunity cost for women is so high because child care compromises their career development. She says government introduced the general two-child policy because the one-child policy was meant to last from 1980s to 1990s. So, it was time to introduce changes given the ageing structure of the Chinese population. The labour ages of 15 to 64 have also gone down, thereby compromising sustainable economic development, she underscored.

The National Health and Family Planning Commission in 2015 undertook a survey, asking respondents why they would not have a second child. Almost three quarters cited financial pressures, 61.1 per cent mentioned the efforts involved in raising children, while 60.5 per cent gave the shortage of caretakers as reason. These days, an increasing number of couples depend on their retired parents to help take care of their kids.

Rising associated expenses

Because the number of pregnancies has risen since the recent change to the second-child policy, reserving a hospital bed for prenatal examination and delivery has become more difficult, China Daily reported earlier this year. The policy has also had an effect on the market place. The average charge of a live-in nurse has shot up to 5,000 RMB a month, double what it was five years ago. Meanwhile, tuition in a kindergarten that teaches Chinese and English has risen from 4,000 RMB a month to 6,500 RMB over the same period, though the public kindergarten is cheaper, the paper said

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Choosing to have a second child entails taking a lot of key factors into consideration. Photo by National Health and Family Planning Commission

Fu Ying, spokeswoman of the Fifth Session of the 12th National People’s Congress said earlier this year that as the second-child policy is implemented, it is important to ensure that appropriate policies and services are in place to meet the resulting demand. Yang Wenzhuang, a division director in the National Health and Family Planning Commission was cited as saying that government was striving to improve its medical, childcare, education, social security and tax policies, and to develop child care services and ensure women’s equality in employment and child care leave.

There has been an increase in the number of older women getting pregnant. Those in their 40s are eager to have a second child, said Liang Haiyan, Associate Chief Physician in the Gynecology and Obstetrics Department, China-Japan Friendship Hospital, Beijing.

Pioneer efforts at curbing population

China was not the first country to introduce birth control in the world as India did so in 1952, Prof. Yang Juhua recalled. In the 1950s and 1960s, China encouraged contraception amongst women; not for birth control. In 1971, a new programme was instituted to curb population growth. Late marriages replaced early marriages, longer child spacing took over short interval births, and fewer children were preferred to many children.

This led to a decline in fertility between 1972 and 1978 from 23.4 births to 12.05 births per 1,000 – a reduction of about 50 per cent. The number of children per couple fell from 5 to 2.72. The decline in the number of births in the late 1970s was however not enough. With the introduction of reform and opening up in 1978, Chinese households became responsible for agricultural production instead of the community as the planned economy gave way to market economy.

In 1949, China had a population of 540 million; which rose to 960 million in 1978.Youth under 21 years made up 80 per cent of the total population. Peasants in the countryside needed more children to help on their farms. Government then embarked on stricter population control. Though the one-child policy was not applied all over the country, it was in force in cities and Jiangsu and Sichuan provinces.

Those whose first children were female were given the opportunity to have a second about 4 years after – thus, the 1.5 child policy. This was applicable to rural farmers. There was also the 2-child or more policy in minority or less developed parts of the country. Thus, the one-child policy did not mean one child per couple per se.

Dividends of years of efforts

In the 1970s, an average Chinese woman had 4.77 children, but the number dropped to 1.64 children in 2011. “Without the policy, there would have been additional 400 million in China,” Prof. Yang warned. According to her, birth control and economic reforms have improved livelihoods in the past four decades. The current life expectancy for Chinese is 79 years for women and 75 years for men – the average being 76 years.

“The past policy of restricted fertility was successful in terms of reduction of population growth rate, ushering in demographic dividends and facilitating economic development. The policy was quite successful and necessary. In future, and with economic development, couples automatically will reduce the number of children. The child birth policy will be more relaxed as people will limit the number of children by themselves,” Prof. Yang Juhua predicted.

Kimeng Hilton Ndukong, a contributor to People’s Daily Online, is Sub-Editor for World News with Cameroon Tribune bilingual daily newspaper in Cameroon. He is currently a 2017 China-Africa Press Centre, CAPC fellow. 

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