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Home  /  Inside China  /  Breaking the 4-2-1: How does China react to the permission of a 'second child' for parents who are both singletons?
Breaking the 4-2-1: How does China react to the permission of a 'second child' for parents who are both singletons? print version

A week ago, local government of Henan province has announced it is allowing couples where husband and wife are both singletons to give birth to the 'second child'. 30 Chinese provinces have began implementing such policy before and with Henan completing the list, officials, scholars and common people throughout China are analyzing the reasons behind this act and its intriguing possible outcomes.

Although Chinese is rigidly persisting to implement the One-Child Policy some relaxations of the law are taking place. Last week Henan was the last province to adopt the policy of allowing singletons to form households of two children, after 27 of China's 31 provinces have already completed such adjustment in the late 1990s. Henan, the most highly populated province in China, joined this new regulatory landscape, making the Chinese birth control policies officially more permissive in households established by two singletons (shuangdu jiating 双独家庭), and opening a wide aperture for extensive debates.

Although Shandong and Sichuan adopted this regulation long ago, it was only in recent years that many 'double-singletons families' began to give birth to a new generation. As the pioneers of the 80hou (post 1980s) singleton generation are beginning the forth decade of their life, a growing number of single children are becoming parents. The reality of one-child families, which they know so well, is no longer an obligation for their own household, but will the 'double singleton families' indeed give birth to a second child and change China's demography?

Short reminder: Although birth control regulations aren't unanimous throughout China, generally speaking, urban families are allowed to have one-child, rural residents are normally allowed to have two (also dependent on the gender of the first and second child) and ethnic minorities also enjoy family-planning flexibility. Allowing couples of singletons to have the 'second child' is thus relevant only for urban singletons, and is expected to have a growing effect on China's population in the following decades.

However, China being China, many exceptions took place during the era of the one-child policy, even in the urban sphere. Unregistered children and connections with officials and physicians, allowed some families to overcome the strict regulations and in fact give birth to a second, and maybe a third, offspring. Now, this bending of regulations might be 'paid' for by couples of the next generation as, unless they also enjoy similar connections, they would have to settle for one child, while their singletons friends can plan giving birth to the 'second'. Former rural young Chinese, who have managed to become urban residents during the reform era, are also left behind the advancement offered by new regulations, and with their new residency they don't enjoy the option of having a second child that is given in the countryside.

In any case, the pattern of four grandparents and two parents per one child can be broken and not repeated by future families, anywhere in China. 

What considerations led to the (relatively) new regulations? First, one-child families who have so far obliged to the governmental policies are being slightly rewarded, as decision-makers hear social and traditional voices, expressing a need to move away from the single-child pattern. Second, and more emphasized by the press, is the need to respond to the aging of the Chinese population (laolinghua), a trend that causes concern among many levels of society. As the society as a whole, and daughters and sons as individuals, find greater difficulty in taking care of the elderly (yanglao fudan 养老负担), there is a need to hinder the changing demographics and ensure that the current 16.6% of people of age 60+ among the entire population wouldn't become 1/5 within several years. Policy-makers are attempting to achieve 'renkou hongli' (人口红利), which means a population in which a large proportions of residents are in working age and thus can be productive in catering the old (and the very young).

Still, family-planning regulations did have a purpose that cannot be quickly ignored. Officials interviewed on the topic in recent weeks stress the fact that many couples are actually content with the one-child format, as it is more adaptive to the economical limitations brought upon by the modern society. Most Chinese scholars join this discussion, suggesting that 'the second child' policies won't lead to a sharp population growth. 

While in most developed countries decreasing birth rates are an outcome of modernization, China of the early reform years reversed this format, believing that lower birth rates and a slowly growing population would accelerate development. It is clear today that values have somewhat changed during the last 32 years. Intense development of the urban environment accomplished during the reform years, along with a shift from the traditional large families, has changed social norms and will probably prevent some singleton parents from enlarging their families.

Yet, the fact that press articles and state-affiliated scholars emphasize how, for example, half of singletons couples in Shanghai refrain from having a second child and are associating a developed urban sphere with one-child families, can be also seen as an encouragement of the population not to open the gate for the 'traditional' concept of large families so fast. Surveys of netizens in different Chinese portals actually contradict the Shanghai narrative, showing that most singleton couples will take advantage of the new possibility. Though two children is hardly a large family, officials do wish that many singleton couples will still choose to settle for one child, rather than adopt the more traditional norms of their parents and grandparents. If the latter takes place, the government might regret this relaxation of regulations. The model of Shanghai, the most modernized urban center in China, is expressed by government officials as an example that other cities should consider to copy.

Besides technical demographics there are some subtle outcomes that might be witnessed as well. The 'double-singletons' regulations might add a complexity to dating behaviors, leading singletons to settle only for a singleton spouse. This might limit the already few dating possibilities between rural and urban residents. 

What is awaiting for the Chinese society years from now remains unknown. Is the relaxation of birth policies going to expand in future years, or is this a temporal phase, before a new generation of singletons could be formed? The answer cannot be predicted, but it is clear that regarding China as a one-child society is already becoming a harsh generalization.


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