Asia Pacific | ANALYSIS

Xi's baby steps on child policies seen as weakness, not strength, of party

by Ting Shi

Bloomberg

While Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to end a one-child policy in place for more than three decades may appear bold, the move says more about the Communist Party’s insecurity than its resolve to tackle economic problems.

By merely completing the shift to a nationwide “two-child policy” — a process that’s been under way for years with lackluster results — the party demonstrated its reluctance to relinquish control over families in the world’s most populous country.

The party communique announcing the change reaffirmed family planning as a basic national policy, despite long- standing calls by economists and demographers for more dramatic reforms to avoid population declines and complete China’s transition to a developed economy.

“The inability to scrap the childbirth-limit idea altogether is indicative of the fatal difficulty the party has on surrendering control of anything,” said Arthur Kroeber, founding partner and managing director at Gavekal Dragonomics, a research firm. “The failure to go for full abolition reflects a baseline view that the party must keep its fingers in everyone’s business all the time. And this stance is inimical to the kind of innovation-driven, consumer-oriented economy they say they want to create.”

Abandoning the single-child limit was among the social and economic policies announced Thursday as the party unveiled its national development blueprint for the rest of the decade. The so-called five-year plan provides the leadership’s best opportunity to reform the economy, with the communique referring to a “decisive phase” in achieving Xi’s goal of a “moderately prosperous society.”

Returning child-rearing choices entirely to the people could spur growth by freeing those who want three or more children to expand their families. Encouraging such impressions of personal freedom, however, is a challenge for a party that sees maintaining control over the information people consume and who they associate with as necessary to retaining power.

Moreover, dramatic policy changes go against the gradual, consensus-based approach the party has favored since the painful upheavals under late Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. Scrapping key policies risks encouraging those who believe others — like say the “one country, two systems” principle that governs Hong Kong — can also be repealed.

“The Communist Party’s habitual thinking pattern is gradualism: changes need to take place steadily over the course of time,” said Hu Xingdou, an economics professor at the Beijing Institute of Technology. “If it completely abandons birth control it would mean a revision of a ‘basic national policy,’ while ‘basic national policy’ means in the Communist Party lexicon that it will not change for a long, long time.”

The 36-year-old one-child policy was a central piece of late leader Deng Xiaoping’s effort to rebuild an economy ruined by decades of social strife. The concern was that the birth rate of almost 3 children per woman was a drag on growth.

Another risk in doing away with the policy would be the headache of what to do with at least half a million bureaucrats and party cadres now responsible for monitoring the pregnancies and birth-control practices of one-fifth of the world’s population. Policies are often designed to avoid social unrest, and the promise of lifetime employment has been a traditional reason that people go to work for the party and government.

In the end, the party decided to raise its one-child limit to a two-child limit.

That’s even though fewer than 10 percent of the 11 million couples eligible to have a second child under a previous policy relaxation in December 2013 applied for permission to do so, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

After decades of discouraging births amid a historic economic boom, potential parents are worried about the costs of expanding their families. Allowing all couples to have two children could add 3 million to 8 million births annually, according to Huang Wenzheng, a demographer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“There will be little or no consequence demographically,” said Stein Ringen, a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Oxford. “There will then also be little or no consequence economically. So, the leaders are doing a bit. Not much, but still enough to be ‘a step in the right direction.’ “