China Signals Shift Away From Birth Restrictions as Population Ages

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BEIJING—The Chinese government is sidelining a family-planning bureaucracy originally set up to manage the country’s contentious one-child policy, a sign that Beijing wants to de-emphasize birth restrictions in favor of issues related to an aging population.

As part of a broad government reorganization, several government agencies will merge under one ministry, replacing what is now called the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

While family planning will still be part of the work of the new ministry, to be called just the National Health Commission, the disappearance of the words “family planning” from its name was seen as a clear sign of a shift in priorities. According to the plan laid out this week at China’s annual legislative session, the new health agency will “actively deal with population aging,” handling issues such as the development of the elderly-care sector and overhauling an overburdened health-care system.

The plan “signals that family planning as a macro regulation policy has become history,” said Zuo Xuejin, a researcher specializing in population economics at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank.

Many Chinese cheered what was seen as the dismantling of a half-a-million-strong bureaucracy that, especially in the early years, was blamed for brutal practices such as forced abortions and that is still in charge of extracting heavy fines from birth offenders.

“I’m not sad never to see them again,” said Huang Yanfang, an insurance agent in Hubei province. She said the local family-planning agency fined her almost 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) for her second child, born in May 2015. She sued the local agency in 2016, once the one-child policy had been declared null and void. Under a settlement late last year, the local agency retracted the fine.

Some parents celebrated the news by sending virtual cash gifts to one another on the popular

WeChat

messaging app, and gleeful comments circulated on social media.

The commission “didn’t bring us any happiness; instead it turned China into an aging country,” said one commenter on the Weibo microblogging platform. “Time to set up the birth-facilitation commission,” another said.

The government has been easing its grip on birth restrictions over the years and in late 2015 said it was abolishing the one-child policy, in place since 1980. But the big bump in births expected from allowing all Chinese couples to have two children has largely failed to materialize.

In 2016, the first year after the policy was dropped, the number of newborns rose 7.9% from 2015, to 17.86 million. But last year, births dropped to 17.23 million, the National Statistics Bureau said in January. Officials have said the number of births are “within expectations.”

Delegates to the legislative meeting, the National People’s Congress, sounded more alarms over China’s dire demographic situation. Zheng Gongcheng, a member of the internal-affairs commission of the congress, said at a briefing on Monday that the portion of people over age 60 increased from 10% of the population in 1999 to 17.3% last year.

The health and family-planning commission didn’t respond to requests for comment. The agency in its existing form was in turn the result of a merger five years ago of what was then the National Population and Family Planning Commission and the Ministry of Health.

Many saw the move as a step toward the abolition of birth restrictions.

The role of family planning in China will be weakened, downgraded and marginalized, said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in Guangdong.

In the future, the government may shift to make it easier to bring up children, such as protecting pregnant women’s rights at work,  said Mr. Zuo at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

“The day when we hear about abandoning birth restrictions may not be far,” he said.

–Liyan Qi and Fanfan Wang

Appeared in the March 15, 2018, print edition as ‘China Signals Shift From Birth Limits.’



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