It must be a bizarre society where the State decides how many children a parent can have. Yet, China’s one-child policy has always had mixed responses at home and abroad. When it was adopted in the late 1970s, many hailed it as a necessary step aimed at striking a balance between population growth and the distribution of resources. But others saw it as a particularly ugly face of a totalitarian State. To critics of the policy, it was a gross violation of human rights. The same ambivalence marks the first step towards the relaxation of the one-child policy. Last week, local governments in four cities, including Beijing, announced a conditional easing of the policy. A couple in these cities can now have a second offspring if either of them happens to be an only child. This follows the ruling communist party’s decision last November to introduce another set of reforms, both economic and social. Two factors seem to have prompted the party to relax the one-child policy. An ageing population is believed to have created a serious imbalance in China’s demographic pattern. This is seen as a future threat to the ratio between manufacturing and available manpower. Also, the one-child policy has been increasingly blamed for the erosion of the structure of the family.
However, the party could always bend the rule on family planning, as on any other. There were exemptions to the single-child policy — for families belonging to the minority communities and for peasants whose first children were girls. But the rich and the powerful flouted the rule with impunity, often with the blessings of party bosses. Many of these people would get away with paying a fine or just with bribing the local officials. There was a public outcry last year when Zhang Yimou, China’s best-known filmmaker, disclosed that he had three children. To the ordinary Chinese, Mr Zhang’s disclosure confirmed what they had always suspected — that the law did not apply to the rich and to those protected by the party. The relaxation of the policy may thus make life a little less State-controlled for those who qualify for it. It could also go some way in making China’s family planning apparatus a little less corrupt. The more important question, though, is what the relaxation of the one-child policy will do to the population of the world’s most populous country in a few decades. The question is of crucial significance for both China and the rest of the world.