A few weeks ago I announced that this blog was going to have weekly updates. I apologize for not following through on that. I haven’t given up, and I intend to keep writing here.
So, on to today’s subject: changes in Chinese population control laws. It is now legal for Chinese couples to have up to two children without special permission or pain of punishment. A seemingly simple change speaks volumes about China. If you remember, the Communist Party first announced plans for this round of reforms two years ago at the Party Congress that also anointed Xi Jinping as paramount leader. In that post, I mentioned that Chinese Communist Party reformers like to work slowly, carefully and very deliberately. And here we are, two years after they first announced it, the government of China relaxed the birth control laws. The announcement made a lot of waves, and raised a lot of questions about it’s actual significance to China.
Every China-watcher who has commented on the reform agrees the Party was driven to make these changes to address an aging population and a looming labor crunch. So the biggest question is will the new laws allow enough births in time to address labor shortfalls, and produce enough income to care for a high population of elderly. For my part I simply do not know the answer. When you read about Chinese demographics, you hear that many Chinese couples wish to have more children. In that case, it is logical to expect more births per couple, which leaves the question of timing. When are they going to have those children? People tend to voluntarily put off having children, and tend to have fewer of them anyway as they grow in affluence. That’s right: success and wealth form humanity’s best population control strategy. It works like this: when your children have a better chance of survival, you can invest more resources in their upbringing. But even abundant resources are finite, so investing more resources in raising children creates pressure to have fewer of them. Chinese couples may find themselves in this environment soon, if they don’t already. I am talking about a situation in which parents have autonomy over their reproduction, which hasn’t been the case in China. I suppose it still doesn’t count when the limit is only raised to two children per couple.
The long time lag between the announcement that the one-child policy would be reformed and the actual promulgation of the new two-child policy indicates how the Communist Party has approached reform since the tenure of Deng Xiaoping as China’s paramount leader. They do them slowly, and a few reforms at a time so that the authorities can observe the consequences and make further policy changes to address unintended negative consequences. Keep in mind, Chinese officials are not especially talkative about this approach. Political scientists put this analysis together over the decades. It derives from the philosopher of Deng Xiaoping and his supporters and the father of Chinese republicanism; Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen described a system of governance he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” and sometimes called “democracy with Chinese characteristics.” Sun believed that China could not simply introduce democracy and modern economics with a few government edicts because too much of Chinese education and daily life was still too backwards and medieval to accommodate modern philosophers without a high chance of failure that would only enable the re-establishment of monarchy. China would have to carefully cultivate modernity on its own terms, and to do so required the guidance of educated elites who understood the benefits of democracy and its prerequisites of modern education and modern industry to support, how to write proper democratic and industrial, and most importantly, implementing all of those things in the first place. Deng Xiaoping and his successors have governed by this philosophy. In fact, Taiwan was governed this way for decades too. What does this have to do with population control? Xi Jinping and his team do not want to liberalize China’s population control laws only to send China too far in the other direction. They decided the one-child policy was no longer appropriate for China, but they did not want to cause different population problems down the line. They took their time to devise what they hope is exactly the right population for China. Xi and Deng govern the way they think Sun Yat-sen governed. It means President Xi thinks if he had loosened the laws anymore, Chinese couples would not naturally stop at two, but have many more and leave China with an excess of people it would not be able to care for.
As conditions within a country such as China change, policy has to change with them. Statesmen introduce laws to address specific problems. The way they change policies tells us how statesmen understand the problems they try to address, and how they understand the tools at society’s disposal.