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Expert views on China ending its one-child policy

Experts at the University of East Anglia give their views on China's decision to end its one-child policy.

Dr Anna Smajdor, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, specialises in medical ethics – particularly surrounding childbirth and reproduction. She says that increasing the child quota in China is unlikely to rebalance China’s ageing population.

“It is sensible for countries to have explicit policies on reproduction just as they do on carbon emissions and other phenomena that affect the population on a large scale," she said. "China’s one child policy was a logical choice at the time, though perhaps crudely enforced. Without it, China might have faced catastrophe.

“However, increasing the child quota is unlikely to work in rebalancing China’s ageing population, because China like everywhere else is looking at a low birth rate especially among affluent, well-educated women.

“In many cases, it is not that women are not allowed to have more children, but that they do not want to.

“Many countries across the globe are seeing similar phenomena, because if women have choice and economic freedom, they do not have as many babies, and they have them later in life thus further entrenching the ageing population.

“The women in China’s poorest rural areas were already allowed to have more than one child so again, the change in the law is not likely to have a huge impact except perhaps in bringing it more in line with Western values.

“However, I would argue that the refusal of Western liberal democracies to address reproduction and population issues is a failure which China should not seek to emulate.”

Prof Peter Lloyd-Sherlock, from UEA's School of International Development, is professor of social policy and international development. His main area of research looks at social protection, health and the wellbeing of older people. He says that China's one-child policy is already a thing of the past, and that the key question is how China will support its large ageing population. 

"The news that China is to end its notorious one-child policy hardly comes out of the blue," he said. "In reality, the policy has been phasing out over the past 15 years, with a reduction of sanctions in many parts of the country.

"The one-child policy has attracted considerable criticism in terms of its effects on human rights. This fits neatly into a wider western critique of China’s human rights record. Defenders of the policy point out that, without such an authoritarian intervention, China’s population would be substantially higher than it currently is.

"It is unlikely that reductions in poverty and improvements in human development would have been so notable if population growth had remained rapid. Then again, academics point out that China’s rapid fall in fertility rates since the 1970s was not entirely due to this policy.

"Other countries, such as Brazil, also achieved a substantial reduction in fertility without any direct state intervention. It is sometimes said that ‘development is the best contraceptive’ – improved education for women, urbanisation and other changes have had a major impact on population growth around the world, irrespective of official population policies.

"How much difference the one-child policy made within this wider context of development and change is open to debate.

"The consequences of the policy are less open to debate. Among other things, these include a skewed sex ratio, with larger numbers of men than women, due to selective abortion.

"Even more significantly, they include large numbers of older people with few if any children to support them in later life.

"China is ageing fast, but formal services for long-term care are very limited and most older people in rural areas do not receive a pension. As a result, families (read ‘children’) remain by far the most important form of support for older people.

"The Chinese government is developing policies to meet this new challenge, but the scale and pace of the change are immense. As such, the key issue at the Central Committee Summit is what is being done about this new challenge, rather than formal recognition that the one-child policy is already a thing of the past."

Image: Angela Guida, Flickr


Study medicine at UEA

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