Draft of civil code being discussed this week contains no references to ‘family planning’
China is mulling scrapping its controversial birth restrictions, reversing nearly four decades of family planning policies as birth rates fall.
Chinese couples are limited to two children at present, after rules were relaxed from the infamous one-child policy that was in force from 1979 to 2016. Now officials are poised to enact a wide-ranging civil code that would end a policy that has been enforced through fines but was also notorious for cases of forced abortions and sterilisation in the world’s most populous country.
The Procuratorate Daily, a newspaper affiliated with the country’s prosecutor’s office, said the draft code omitted any reference to “family planning” – the current policy which limits couples to having no more than two children. The report did not indicate whether the new policy would raise the limit or allow an unlimited number of children.
The draft civil code, which is being discussed by the standing committee of the National People’s Congress this week, is set to be completed by 2020.
The draft code also includes “clear rules” to tackle the “intense problem of sexual harassment” reflected throughout society, state-run news agency Xinhua said on Tuesday, in an apparent nod to China’s growing #Metoo movement. Victims can demand perpetrators “assume civil liability” for committing sexual harassment through words or actions, or exploiting someone’s subordinate relationship, Xinhua reported.
The Communist party began enforcing a one-child policy in 1979 to slow population growth. The limit was raised to two children in 2016 as the nation scrambled to rejuvenate its ageing population of 1.4 billion.
Concerns are mounting that an ageing and shrinking workforce could slow China’s economy, while gender imbalances could lead to social problems.
Mary Gallagher, a politics professor at the University of Michigan, said: “[The government] now faces a colossal demographic cliff, as the working population shrinks and the ageing population rapidly expands. It also lacks a social insurance program that can adequately support its ageing population.”
Another concern is Chinese officials could “intervene as aggressively in pro-natalist policies as it did in anti-natalist policies,” she added. “This could have very negative effects on the position of women in the labor market, in society, and in the family.”
Childbirths have not increased as much as forecast since the two-child policy came into force, and there has been rising speculation the government will further ease restrictions.
Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, said: “It’s quite clear that the Chinese government is increasingly alarmed at the low birth rate and the failure to produce the expected boost in births by easing the one-child policy.”
The meetings of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, a powerful body of lawmakers headed by Li Zhanshu, run until Friday.
Other proposed changes include a one-month cooling-off period before a divorce, during which either party can withdraw their application.
News of the proposed changes lit up social media. “So they want us to have more babies and less divorces?” wrote one user on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.
“The created generation, us only children, let’s gather together and prepare to work in our twilight years,” another user wrote. “Having children is good, eases the government’s healthcare cost for the elderly.”
Speculation about a change grew this month after a government-issued postage stamp for the Year of the Pig in 2019 showed a porcine family complete with three piglets.
Couples have been in no rush to start larger families since the policy was loosened, with 17.9 million babies born in 2016 – just 1.3 million more than in the previous year, and half of what was expected, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
Births in 2017 even slipped to 17.2 million, well below the official forecast of more than 20 million.
Two Chinese academics caused a social media storm earlier this month when they proposed that couples with one or no children should pay into a tax-like “maternity fund”.
Hong Fincher said it remained to be seen how the Chinese government would implement any changes. She said incentives to have more children had not worked and the government might resort to other measures such as pressuring young women to get married and restricting abortions.
“Whatever policy they implement,” she said, “they will continue to control women’s reproductive rights.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report