August 8th 2009

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Economic bounce masks deep structural crisis

ENERGY: What can Australia do when the fuel runs out?

EDITORIAL: Overseas lesson in energy conservation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Turnbull's judgement under a cloud

SCHOOLS: The choice so few parents can afford to make

MARRIAGE: The personal and social costs of cohabitation

OPINION: Keeping marriage between a man and a woman

CHINA: Cracks appear in China's detested one-child policy

POLITICAL IDEAS: Distributist responses to the global economic crisis

WAR ON TERROR: What will we learn from the Jakarta bombings?

EUROPE: Obama told: don't abandon central and eastern Europe

OBITUARY: Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski dies at 81

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Protest at News Weekly article on East Timor

Tony Abbott on divorce (letter)

Time for a people's bank? (letter)

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Genderless child-rearing experiment / Hostility towards masculinity / Dear baby-boomers ... / Shopkeepers honoured

BOOK REVIEW: POMPEII: The Life of a Roman Town, by Mary Beard

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Cracks appear in China's detested one-child policy

by Ian H. McDougall

News Weekly, August 8, 2009
Just what China's one-child policy achieves is open to question, as it is both widely flouted and widely detested. Horror stories abound - forced abortions, infanticide and abandonment of infants, especially girls.

But the fact is that the one-child policy is more like a "1.8 child policy", because that is the actual birth rate - higher than countries like Italy, Spain and Taiwan, which have low birth rates and would dearly love more children to offset ageing populations.

The reason it is so hard to put a finger on the one-child policy is that it is enforced at provincial level. The traditional method of governance in China is that the central government establishes policy and that officials at lower levels implement the policy. The central government can only do "big things"; smaller things are pushed down the line for the lower level officials to do.

So, while the Chinese Government is centralised in Beijing and in theory the provinces have less freedom to move than their equivalent states in their Australian or United States counterparts, they often have considerable freedom of action. Enforcing an unpopular policy in a nation of some 1.3 billion, with almost a quarter of the world's population, isn't easy.

The Communist government of China prefers the term "family-planning policy" to "one-child policy". The one-child policy is credited by government with having prevented more than 400 million births, although other experts say the figure is more like 60 million.

With the traditional preference for boys in Asian cultures, the one-child policy has created a significant imbalance in the ratio of boys to girls, with 117 boys to every 100 girls. Experts estimate that soon there could be an excess of 80 million males to females.

More and more exclusions are being added officially. In recent years, couples in urban centres such as Shanghai are allowed to have two children if they themselves are from one-child families. In rural areas, couples are allowed to have two children if the first child is a girl. Couples in disaster areas, such as the area of Szechuan Province in central western China devastated by a recent earthquake, are allowed to have more children if they lost children.

Ethnic minorities are frequently excluded from the plan. More than one child is allowed if the first child is deformed or ill. This leads to horror stories of children with some minor birth defect, particularly girls, being abandoned in overflowing orphanages so that couples can have a "normal" child.

The one-child policy and the imbalance of sexes lead to many dreadful outcomes. Child-stealing is common. Children are stolen from one area, shipped hundreds or even thousands of miles and then sold to childless families. They are not kidnapped for ransom, although this also occurs, but to be sold outright.

In poor rural areas, unmarried women are so scarce that peasant farmers buy women who have been kidnapped. If the traded women try to escape, the tendons in their legs are often severed to cripple them and make escape impossible. In urban areas, the reverse can by true, with female migrant domestic and factory workers outnumbering males. More than one unmarried thirtyish young woman has sadly told me that "no one wants me".

Rich families often flout the one-child policy. While over 600 million Chinese still live on less than $2 a day, the rising tide of affluence means that many urban families can either pay the fines involved or go to areas or other counties to have their babies, which are then not counted in the family total. For example, official figures show that mainland Chinese women gave birth to nearly 78,000 babies in Hong Kong, officially a Special Administrative Region (SAR) that is not subject to the one-child policy, to skirt restrictions on family size.

Two years ago, the Chinese Government increased the penalties on second and subsequent children to a multiple of the average per capita income of the area the violators live in, ranging from 20,000 yuan ($4,000) in the countryside to 200,000 yuan ($40,000) in the cities. As many urban families can easily pay these penalties, the central government is now resorting to a policy of "naming and shaming" violators.

Even harder to control are the tens of millions of migrant workers floating around China. As they are still officially domiciled in their home village, these migrant women have to report to their local officials, including sending negative results for pregnancy tests. Often, they simply move on to avoid detection.

Demographic death spiral

Overall, the degree to which the one-child policy is enforced depends on local circumstances. Some experts believe that the policy has been too successful and that China is in a demographic death spiral that will see the population decline to 400 million - less than a third of China's population today. That would be a very different China.

But for now, most families want a boy and a girl.

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