December 26, 2013 12:00 am JST

Shanxi county paved way for easing of one-child rule

KATHLEEN E. McLAUGHLIN, Contributing writer

YICHENG, China -- From the outside, the yellowed brick houses and acrid gray air make this dusty spot in China's coal country indistinguishable from its neighboring counties in the north central province of Shanxi.

     Yet, a closely guarded experiment here in Yicheng may have helped convince Communist Party leaders in November that they could ease the country's one-child policy without touching off a massive population boom that could disrupt the economy.

     Following the party central committee's plenum in November, state media announced that couples in which either spouse is an only child would be allowed to have two children -- a broad exemption given that the one-child policy has been in effect since 1979. Previously only some farmers and members of ethnic minorities were exempted. Some provinces are expected to implement the new policy in the first quarter of 2014, state media reported on Dec. 24. 

     In Yicheng, nearly 1,000km southwest of Beijing, most families have been allowed to have two children since 1985, as long as they are at least six years apart. Also, women are not allowed to get married until they are 23, and men until they are 25. The minimum marriage age in the rest of China is 20 for women and 22 for men.

     Despite its more liberal child policy, Yicheng's birthrate has been stable and comparable to that of the rest of the country for 28 years, with both now at 1.6 births per adult female. However, while baby boys worryingly outnumber baby girls in the country generally, 118 to 100, the gender ratio in Yicheng is fairly even at 104 boys for every 100 girls.

     While Yicheng's results suggest that nationwide liberalization will not set off a baby boom and could curtail a key source of tension between local officials and their constituents, they also imply that the loosened rule might not arrest the rapid aging of China's populace, a worry of the government. Nor may it be much of a boon for producers of baby products, whose shares have climbed since the party plenum.

     Liberalization will also remove a significant source of local government revenue. Recently released figures for 24 of the country's 31 provinces show they collected 20 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) last year from fines imposed on parents for excess children. 

Tense at first

Yicheng likely was chosen to test the two-child approach because of its remoteness from population centers, which helped keep the pilot program quiet for many years. The test began in 1985 with the arrival of Liang Zhongtang, an influential demographer from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who already had misgivings about the one-child policy.

     Indicating he had approval from on high, he told the local officials that residents classified as living in the officially rural parts of the county -- representing 85% of the populace -- would be permitted to have two children.

     Feng Caishan, now 66, was a village mayor at the time. He remembers being apprehensive, having already struggled with implementing the one-child policy. Most families were already having two or more children, dodging officials, ducking fines and even going on the run. Village officials battled constantly to convince residents to use birth control or be sterilized. Nobody wanted to work for the family planning commission given the expectation they would be vilified for dictating to people about one of the most personal aspects of their lives.

      "We could not find a single person who was willing to have only one child in their whole life," Feng said. "There were still people having three children or more. The situation here became very tense."

     "I thought I had heard things wrong," Feng said, recalling Liang's announcement of the two-child exemption. "It was so hard to control the birthrate under the one-child policy. If you allowed people to have two, wouldn't they have more? Wouldn't the situation get out of control?"

     After the initial concerns, both residents and officials began to relax. Feng was promoted in 1990 to be director of the county's family planning commission, a less stressful position as its work had shifted from policing reproduction to educating citizens about the costs savings of having smaller families.

More reasonable

Still, officials had to keep track of births, and still do. A fat log book in the family planning commission's office contains a record of each resident, the number of children they have had and whether the women are using birth control or have been sterilized.

     Even the early results of Yicheng's two-child approach pleased Liang. "The biggest result was that the population growth level was lower than the national, provincial and municipal average," he said.

     Yicheng was given a target population of 300,000 for 2000, Feng said. In the end, with relaxed rules and family education, that year's census counted 300,331 residents.

     "At first, we didn't know if we could accomplish the task," said Feng, who retired soon after the census. "Now we look back and realize that because the policy was so much more favorable toward people, they accepted it. People were motivated to plan their families."

     To Liang, the results of the two-child approach prove that family planning is not the job of government. 

     "Fertility is the basic right of the people and the government should never interfere with it," he said. "Using statistics and other theories to support the problem of family planning is sophistry. Government controlling people's fertility itself is wrong."

     The people of Yicheng, many of whom, as in other rural areas, have migrated to fast growing cities for work, say they did not realize their county had been a test bed. Several said they never heard of the one-child policy, but only knew of Yicheng's two-child rule.

     Guo Fuyou, a 60-year-old retired teacher, said the two-child policy made sense to most people in Yicheng and was simply "more reasonable" than restricting families to a single child. Many families, she noted, had only one child.

     "Most people were happy to accept the two-child policy," she said. "People could not accept the one-child policy, but right now, many are okay with having one child. Now it is exhausting to have more children."

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