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  • Save the Girl Child

Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?

The One Child Policy was instituted by the Chinese government in 1979. Worried that the burgeoning population was created a strain on the country's resources, this was a way to curb the growth. However, three decades later, faced with a population that is shrinking and ageing, Chinese policymakers are trying to reverse this. Not only has the policy been scrapped, but there is attempt to convince people to have more children.

Demographers have warned that China’s population will begin to shrink in the next decade, potentially derailing the world’s second-largest economy, with a far-reaching global impact. China’s birthrate last year was at its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, with 15.23 million births, dramatically lower than the 21-23 million officials had expected. By 2050 as much as a third of the country’s population will be made up of people over the age of 60, putting severe strain on state services and the children who care for elderly relatives. China's population is expected to shrink slightly but age significantly by 2050.

Birthrates in certain cities have fallen steeply. The average number of children per woman was 0.9 in 2000 and 0.56 in 2015. That could mean the next generation will be a quarter of the size of the last one. Local governments across China are struggling to reverse the declines with subsidies, propaganda initiatives and new regulations on workplace leave.

Some worry that such measures will turn coercive, with the authorities deploying an extensive family planning apparatus to encourage births. Officials once restricted population size through heavy fines, forced abortions and sterilizations. Now less invasive but still punitive measures could probably emerge gradually at local level such as preventing sex-selective abortions. Government language has alarmed people. Last year an article in the state-run People’s Daily said: “The birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself but also a state affair.” In response, one internet user wrote: “When you don’t want children, you force people to get sterilized. When you want more, you urge us to give birth. What do you think I am?”

“The party state sees the declining population as a real problem, and it’s women’s duty to respond to that,” says Jane Golley, an associate professor at Australian National University, who focuses on the Chinese economy and labour economics. “It’s a new era of control over women’s reproductive choices.”

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