China's leaders want more babies, but local officials resist

china_baby Representative picture | AP

China's birth rate fell to a low 10.94 per thousand in 2018. In the face of an ageing society, China's leaders are desperately seeking to persuade couples to have more children. However bureaucrats seem to think just the opposite as they fined a couple for having a third child. 2 million fewer babies were born in China in 2018. When the couple was fined for having a third baby, it created an outrage among people against population control officers, who are still persecuting couples for violating the scrapped 'one-child policy'.

"The country is doing all it can to encourage childbirth but the local governments need money, so we end with this sort of madness," a columnist and political commentator who writes under the name Lianpeng said on China's Weibo microblogging service. "The low birthrate has everyone on edge, yet the local governments care only about collecting fees," journalist Jin Wei wrote on her verified Weibo account. "I don't know of any other nation that pulls its people in different directions like this."

The couple at the heart of the controversy, The Wangs, were ordered by local authorities in Shandong province to pay a fine known as a "social maintenance fee" of 64,626 yuan ($9,500) immediately after the birth of their third child in January 2017. After various deadlines came and went, the family's entire bank savings of 22,957 yuan ($3,400) were frozen last month, with the balance still due.

"I just don't know what I'm going to do," the husband, Wang Baohua, was quoted as saying by local media last week. The one-child policy emerged in 1980 and was rooted in the fear that China's population would outstrip its resources, along with the ruling Communist Party's all-consuming fervor to control people's most personal decisions. Brutal punishment for violators included forced abortions and sterilizations to fines and workplace demotions.

35 years later, a radical change of course was ordered after leaders realized an aging population and declining workforce threatened to hamstring the country's future development. In 2016, the one-child policy was officially replaced with a two-child policy and Chinese couples were urged to go forth and multiply within limits.

But the bump in the birthrate was fleeting. Last month, the National Bureau of Statistics said the number of new births in 2018 fell to 15.23 million in a total population of 1.395 billion a growth rate of .381 percent and the lowest increase since 1961, resulting in fully 2 million fewer births than in 2017.

China's population is estimated to peak at 1.442 billion in 2029 and then gradually decline, potentially fulfilling the conventional wisdom that China will grow old before it grows rich.

Cases of couples being penalised for having more than two kids are common, despite a growing recognition of the seriousness of the population crisis, said Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison and a leading critic of Chinese population policies.

Bureaucratic inertia and the desire of local officials to chase revenue contribute to the problem, Yi said.

China, with an estimated fertility rate of 1.02 in 2018, now finds itself in the same category as other predominantly Chinese societies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore, Yi said. Average fertility rates in those regions and countries from 2005 to 2017 were 1.10, 1.12, 1.08 and 1.23 respectively.

With economic growth the primary guarantor of continued Communist Party rule, the leadership is concerned. The sputtering economy grew at 6.6 percent last year, its slowest pace in three decades, fueling fears over the long-term trend of a shrinking pool of workers paying the pensions and health care costs for a ballooning population of retirees.

There is considerable resistance to lifting controls entirely, something that might give people greater autonomy.

According to state media reports, fees meant to compensate for the resources extra children consume actually constitute a large percentage of local governments' discretionary funding 15-30 percent and can be used for a range of purposes from salaries to travel expenses.

The National Health Commission has rejected calls to eliminate legal references to family planning, citing among other reasons article 25 of China's Constitution, which says, "The state promotes family planning so that population growth may fit the plans for economic and social development."

There is no guarantee of more children even if legal changes do go through. Families complain of the soaring costs of housing, education, health care and safe food, an important consideration given China's frequent scandals over food and drug safety. And many young Chinese who are enjoying activities such as foreign travel are simply putting off marriage and childbirth indefinitely.

"Other things have taken the place of children, like apartments and vacations. My parents put pressure on us, but I just say it's not possible right now," said a government employee who asked to be identified only as Linda.

Boosting fertility will also require reforms to the economy, society and educational system, Yi said in an email.

"It will be very difficult," he said. "Of course, the premise is to respect human rights and withdraw the government's hands from the people's bodies."