Frida Ghitis: China's decision to end its one-child policy is not a moment of triumph for human rights
The government is only responding to conditions that urgently demand boosting the country's fertility rate, she says
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
China’s decision to prevent most couples from having more than one baby, imposed more than 35 years ago, has always stood as a symbol of just how far the state was prepared to intrude into the lives of its citizens. It was a classic ends-justifies-the-means policy. Not surprisingly, the one-child policy always figured prominently in the relentlessly harsh criticism of China by human rights organizations.
So, now that China has announced that the one-child policy will officially come to an end, some may hail the moment as a triumph for human rights. That, however, would be a mistake.
When the state-run Xinhua news agency announced that the Communist Party of China will move quickly to “implement the policy of ‘one couple, two children,’ ” it was not a sign that the party will suddenly start respecting personal freedoms more than it has in the past. No, this is a case of the party adjusting policy to conditions.
And those conditions urgently demand boosting the country’s fertility rate – among the world’s lowest – to preserve economic growth and social stability, which are indispensable for continuing Communist Party control of the country.
It’s hard to imagine a more intrusive role for the government than telling couples how many children they can have. But it’s not impossible. The draconian policy’s enforcement is, in fact, the height of intrusiveness. Over the years, human rights groups have documented thousands of cases of forced abortions and forced sterilizations – which Amnesty International labels as torture – in addition to heavy fines and other practices.
The new policy, raising the limit to two children per couple, preserves the state’s role. Amnesty says the change makes little difference.
Ironically, the controversial policy was not only harmful; it may have also been unnecessary. When the party announced it in 1978, it explained that its purpose was to “alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems.” Back then, endemic poverty and economic stagnation plagued China. The fear was that a fast-growing population would make matters worse, overstretching limited resources, worsening poverty and threatening political stability.
Authorities claim the policy prevented as many as 400 million births.
Some demographers challenge that number, putting the figure at perhaps half that level. Other experts maintain that the way to curb population growth is not by banning births, but through education and birth control.
But the most effective path for preventing a population explosion is prosperity. It works much more successfully than sending out police to arrest and fine citizens, something even Chinese officials, to their growing consternation, are discovering.
Couples naturally decide to have fewer children as they move from the fields into the cities, become more educated, and when women establish careers outside the home.
In fact, China has been trying to move away from the one-child policy for some time, with befuddling results.
Authorities started loosening the rules a couple of years ago, to no avail. When the government announced relaxed rules that would allow some 11 million couples to have two children, only about 1 million applied for permission to have a second baby.
Pretty soon, we may start seeing signs of panic among Communist Party demographers. China, not unlike its neighbor and rival Japan, has a serious problem with low birth rates. As Japan has shown, the consequences can be disastrous for the economy.
Unlike China, however, Japan doesn’t have the imperative of maintaining strong economic growth. Despite strong economic growth for many years, hundreds of millions of Chinese still live in poverty. The party needs to keep the economic engine humming, and that will become increasingly difficult if people refuse to have more children.
Incredibly, China has managed to preserve abusive restrictions on births while simultaneously struggling to raise the fertility rate.
After more than a generation of collapsing birth numbers and improving life expectancy, China is becoming a country of old people. The number of workers available for sustaining economic growth and caring for their elders is shrinking. Each single child can look forward to eventually looking after two parents and four grandparents. When he marries, he and his wife will double that: one couple responsible for as many as four parents and eight grandparents. That’s just one reason they’re afraid of adding more children to their responsibilities.
The same arithmetic applies to the economy. With the population growing older, there is a smaller ratio of workers to retirees and children. In a country of 1.4 billion, the number of people ages 20 to 24 is becoming smaller, estimated to fall to 94 million by 2020, by one estimate, many of them attending school rather than working. The number of people over 60 is expected to top 360 million by then.
It’s hard to overestimate just how serious the challenge is for the regime.
China’s government has done a spectacular job of boosting economic growth, pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and turning China into the world’s second-biggest economy, with vast financial reserves and an increasingly assertive global role.
And yet, China has one giant Achilles heel. The country is ruled by an unelected government, whose primary concern is preserving growth and stability and preventing challenges to its authority. Doing that has meant systematically suppressing a range of individual freedoms, “including freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion, when their exercise is perceived to threaten one-party rule,” according to Human Rights Watch.
For all its impressive accomplishments, China is “Not Free” by the nonpartisan Freedom House, which says the current President, Xi Jinping, has overseen a worsening of repression, causing a “human rights crisis.”
So, no, despite what may seem like progress, the lifting of the one-child policy is not a victory for individual rights. It’s not even a step in the right direction. It’s more of the same from a regime determined to continue moving in the same direction while it keeps its hands tightly on the rudder.