By 2050, China is expected to have 350 million people over the age of 65 and above. That is like having an entire America inhabited by people well past 65. That number comes with enormous demographic, sociological, cultural, economic and health challenges. China may not say it explicitly but that certainly seems like one of the key factors behind its decision to relax its strict and controversial one-child policy.
The one-child policy has been in force since 1979 and has achieved its objective of slowing down the country’s population growth to a level where the demographic dividend could become negative. An ageing population presents a whole set of challenges to any country, particularly of the size and complexity that China is, that can seriously impair its economic growth. Unless there are people to sustain the domestic economic boom, meaning fresh generations of consumers and workers, there is bound to be a serious slowing down in the economic growth.
Under the old policy, only couples where both fathers and mothers are only children themselves, could have two children. The new policy will allow even those couples, only one of whom was an only child, to have two children. If this is too confusing, I can do nothing about it. Call Beijing and ask someone.
The official Chinese news agency Xinhua reports that this major policy change is a result of the Communist Party’s third plenum where 400 top party leaders met. Along with the relaxation of the one-child policy the government is also abolishing the much reviled re-education through labor system in place since 1957.
At the sociopolitical level, this significant reform addresses the persistent resentment against a serious attack on individual human rights and civil liberties but at the more realistic level the Communist Party seems motivated by the obvious economic disadvantages of an ageing population.
Connected to the issue of one-child is China’s notorious gender imbalance against female children. There are projections that by the end of the decade there will be 24 million men in China would not be able to find women to marry because of the gender imbalance. The way this connected with the now scrapped one-child policy was that since couples could have only one child more often than not they chose to have male children. That preference, which was a result of both socio-cultural predilections as well economic compulsions, can now potentially be moderated because couples can now have two children.
The abolition of re-education camps, a terrible vestige from the era of Mao Zedong, is an obvious reformist move that the Chinese government has to make with the long-term objective of avoiding resentment and restiveness that lead people to upend the established order. In a sense, Beijing is making a preemptive move which is ironic because the policy has been place for 56 years and it is being dismantled not a day too soon.
If you are wondering why the world is taking note of China giving up decades-old policies aimed maintaining strict state control over ordinary lives, the answer is within your question.