The Meaning of One Child Policy Reform

With news outlets rushing to describe how the One Child Policy will be reformed to allow anywhere from ten to twenty million Chinese families to have an additional child, it seems useful to look at the economic and social implications of the changes. As many have noted, any reform of the One Child Policy carries with it great symbolic weight, even though the One Child Policy is basically moot for many Chinese.

Why moot? Although often presented to Western audiences as an iron fisted law – and it is indeed sometimes enforced in a draconian manner by local authorities – the One Child Policy nonetheless features a number of exceptions. For instance, rural residents whose first child is female, all Chinese minorities, and couples who were both born in single-child households are all eligible to have two children. Even in cases where having a second child is illegal, the enforcement of the law is influenced by China’s crypto-federalist structure, with punishment ranging from minor fines, to the loss of one’s job, to forced abortion and sterilization. Generally speaking, the better-governed a Chinese city, the more lenient authorities are in enforcing the One Child Policy.

While Chinese in the countryside often have more than one child, urban Chinese entitled to having two children rarely exercise that right. There are a number of reasons for this. For starters, while having two children might be legal for a couple, there remains a strong social taboo against having additional children. More often, children represent an undue financial burden for Chinese faced with First World childcare expenses on an emerging economy budget. Along these lines, the tax contributions of Chinese citizens are largely based on VAT and payroll taxes, and the tax system provides little in the way of incentives for couples to have children. Still other couples see a second child – or any children – as an obstacle to career development and even leisure time, which reflects attitudes throughout much of urban Asia. For instance, in Taiwan, which is not controlled by the government in Beijing and thus has no One Child Policy, the birthrate was just 1.265 in 2012.

China’s megacities – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou – would nonetheless like couples to have more children to grow their tax base and help pay for the costs of a graying population. Over the next generation, the average age of Chinese will grow considerably, and large cities – where life expectancy is the longest – will be even older than the national average. In 2009, Shanghai began a campaign to get eligible couples to have two children, but the public reaction was mixed. While in other countries a similar population deficit in large cities would be corrected through internal migration, China’s household registration system, the hukou, limits the ability of countryside people to become residents of megacities.

Arguably, One Child Policy reform and hukou reform are interlinked. Megacities and first- and second-tier cities have resisted hukou reform because of a longstanding fear of the creation of slums and possible threats to social order. Moreover, internal remittances from the China’s East Coast to the countryside have played an important role in rural development, increasing nonfarm income and allowing for increased economic specialization. Nonetheless, many rural Chinese would like to become residents of larger cities, citing improved access to education and social insurance as the main incentives for changing residency.

In recent years, the government’s response to the demand for urban hukou (urban residency) has been to urbanize the countryside. Shenzhen, a city literally built from the ground up in the last thirty years, is the best-known example, but China abounds with new edge cities and townships which have appeared almost overnight. The government’s recently announced plans for hukou reform are also focused on these current and future lower-tier cities, with the promise of turning rural Chinese into city-dwellers – though not into residents of Shanghai and Beijing. These fast-growing cities will be subject to the same tax pressures as their larger brethren, however, which leads to the question of how they can grow and maintain a local tax base if new residents are limited to only one child. Moreover, without better schools and social insurance in their own cities, newly-urban Chinese will still find migration to megacities attractive, which is a lose-lose scenario from the point of view of Chinese urban planners.

Enter the new One Child Policy reforms. Megacities will benefit from a population bump as the taboos against having two children are diminished. Smaller cities and cities planned for the future will benefit as populations grow and their tax base expands. China on the whole will benefit from the perception that the country is serious about changing one of its most controversial policies. What remains to be seen is how thorough the implementation of the reform will be at the local level. There are many vested interests that have turned the One Child Policy into a moneymaking tool and have used the policy in oppressive ways that Beijing itself has declared illegal. In these dark corners, like human rights activist Chen Guangcheng’s hometown of Linyi, the old, bad One Child Policy is unlikely to go quietly.

A Case of Soft Power Failure

As any political science major could tell you, in the traditional IR discourse, “power” is defined as the ability of a given state to make other states do what they want. Power is typically measured as a combination of military and economic power, and economic power is considered to be fungible — that is, it can become military power.

In Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye’s reformulation, “soft power” is defined as the ability of a state to make other states do what they want absent economic and military pressure. Soft power is the attractiveness of a country and its government; it makes states liked and makes other states pay attention to their ideas. There are various measures of soft power, but generally it’s described as the cultural, moral, legal, and ideological clout of a given state. Traditional concepts of power are defined as “hard power.”

Although China has focused on soft power development in its relationship with most of the Global South, in China’s near-abroad, the relationship is defined by hard power. In the case of Japan (the Senkakus), the Philippines (the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys), Vietnam (the Spratlys and Mekong River watershed), India (Arunachal Pradesh), and elsewhere, China has used aggressive displays of military force, economic sanctions, and “forward” development such as building highways into disputed territories or establishing outposts at sea. Within ASEAN itself, China has utilized economic power to cultivate patron-client relations with Cambodia and (increasingly) Thailand, which has left ASEAN unable to reach a consensus on the best way to deal with the South China Sea disputes.

For the rest we will focus exclusively on the South China Sea claimants. There’s no disputing that China has gone from friendly to deeply negative relations with most of the countries involved. Some of them, like Brunei, hold their nose and remain officially neutral. They value China as a market for the oil they already have rather than they oil and gas they might discover in the Spratlys. (It helps China that Brunei and Malaysia are busy with their own overlapping claims.) Vietnam, of course, is a rival of China, but the Philippines had been extremely friendly to China during the Jiang era and the start of the Hu Jintao years, only to see the relationship sour over maritime claims.

The result of China’s approach in the South China Sea is a soft power deficit in the region. Even countries which are friendly to China, such as Singapore, have grown wary of Chinese military claims. Singapore values free navigation on the seas, and China’s claims treat the South China Sea not merely as an EEZ but also a territorial sea, which runs counter to Singapore’s interests. Singapore, like the Philippines, had previously been extremely friendly to China, with Lee Kwan Yew a respected figure among Chinese politicians and businessmen. Chinese media were quick to quote Lee when he praised Chinese policies and the industriousness of the Chinese people, but they’ve been noticeably silent when he warns against excess Chinese politico-military pressure in the South China Sea or calls on China to settle disputes according to UNCLOS.

The key issue for China is that while she demonstrates an economic and military willingness to dominate the South China Sea, she has yet to prove herself a benevolent actor. The money is certainly there. China has bought Cambodia’s allegiance to the tune of $9 billion. What’s more, the military resources are there. China almost immediately responded to the last major typhoon to hit the Philippines by sending the PLAN to occupy rocks and reefs in the Scarborough Shoal that the Philippines had to abandon because of the storm. But China has consistently failed to act in a way that increases the PRC’s soft power in its near-abroad, even as military and economic moves cast it in an ever-hegemonic light.

This all feeds into media narratives about China. Some of them are very unfair, but the South China Sea has given the media an almost perfect David-and-Goliath tale, which is the favorite narrative framework for Western reporters. The Philippines is the biggest underdog in all of Southeast Asia, and many reporters who once rooted for American troops to leave the Philippines (we were Goliath then) now, in light of Chinese advances along the Nine Dash Line, root for Americans to return. When it appeared China was unwilling to donate more than $100,000 plus matching funds from the Chinese Red Cross to the Philippines, and moreover, when China failed to respond diplomatically to the crisis, the media went after them with a vengeance.

Before China released the latest round of aid, the media’s storyline of China “punishing the Philippines” was easy to accept. I accepted it, I think most of us did. By pledging more funds, China proved us wrong. (Ironically, some 84% of Chinese netizens would’ve proven us right.) Yet China unquestionably wasted an opportunity to take the lead in helping the Philippines. The money being sent will help save lives and restore order. But China isn’t dispatching aid as a regional or world leader, it’s doing what’s expected of it as a member of the international community. The Chinese contribution is unremarkable, and Chinese condolences came late.

The missed opportunity — the soft power failure — in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan was that China did not even attempt to behave as America, Britain, France, or even Russia might’ve behaved if such a disaster happened in their backyard. Part of that is institutional; I agree with those who say that China lacks sufficient organizations to distribute international aid, but shouldn’t we also ask why China lags in humanitarian aid capability even as we are constantly reminded of the “Beijing consensus” and how Chinese aid has been transformative in Africa?

This isn’t a new story, actually. After the Indonesian Tsunami, China insisted on helping with construction efforts but not resettling refugees, citing — in a very off-putting way — the Chinese policy of “non-interference in domestic affairs.” Then, as now, people lamented China’s narrow “hard power” concept of disaster assistance. History repeats. Beijing might simply be tone deaf to “soft power” and unable to see how its actions play into the perception that China is big enough to take away from the Philippines, but not big enough to give when it counts. Fair or unfair, right or wrong, the Philippines and the rest of ASEAN will remember how China responded to Typhoon Haiyan, and they will act accordingly.