from Asia Unbound

China’s Population Policy—An Exchange Between Edwin Winckler and Yanzhong Huang

July 17, 2012

A young Chinese mother watches her child in front of a sign reading "birth control is a basic state policy of our country" in Beijing on July 23, 2002.
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Dr. Yanzhong Huang is Senior Fellow for Global Health and the newest writer for Asia Unbound. His first post, “Time for China to Abandon Its Population Control Policy,” attracted significant attention, including a thoughtful response from Edwin A. Winckler, a Senior Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. Here we have posted both Dr. Winckler’s commentary and a new response from Dr. Huang. We hope you enjoy their discussion.

-Elizabeth Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies

Time for China to ADJUST Its Reproductive Policies

By Edwin A. Winckler

As someone who in the early 2000s actively researched PRC birth planning, I found the recent post by the fine scholar Professor Yanzhong Huang a little disappointing. Relative to my experience and research, his main points are basically correct, but imprecise in some details, in ways that obscure important potential lessons, not only about PRC population policy in particular but also about PRC governance in general. Probably in many cases Professor Huang knows better and would be more precise in a longer presentation. However, as presented, his post misses an opportunity to correct what I consider misunderstandings of current PRC birth policy that repeatedly arise in media reporting and American discussion. Moreover, he flatly asserts interpretations that deserve further research as questions, not apparently settled conclusions. This post raises some of those questions. (I personally am no longer actively researching PRC birth policy, but I did discuss some of these issues with various kinds of PRC scholars during a June 2012 visit to Beijing .)

Professor Huang is certainly correct in his main overall points. To elaborate slightly, PRC birth limits have long since become demographically unnecessary, demographically counterproductive, and politically costly. The original 1980 policy was demographically unnecessary because fertility was already starting to decline under previous milder policies and incipient socioeconomic development, and because much of subsequent decline has been caused not by policy but by further modernization. The original policy was already demographically counterproductive because experts already anticipated the eventual distortions to sex ratios and age cohorts. Ever since 1980, the policy has been politically costly, both at home and abroad. So the original 1980 policy -- drastically low birth limits enforced by coercively draconian methods –  should not have been adopted in the first place. After popular backlash against initial implementation, the PRC adjusted the policy in 1984 to allow rural couples a second child if their first child was a daughter. Though the PRC has left birth limits the same since, it has much reformed implementation and other aspects of reproductive policy. Many Chinese experts continuously recommend that the policy should be further adjusted, particularly by raising birth limits to two children for all. No doubt the government should do so, expeditiously.

Nevertheless, birth limits have been a major institution of PRC social policy for three decades. Given that history, SHOULD birth limits in any form be simply “abandoned”? Politically, CAN they be entirely “abandoned”? Not only is this not realistic politically, it might well be imprudent policy better to adjust the policy, to see what happens (the view of my June 2012 interlocutors). Possible problems may NOT be mostly a “rebound” of fertility (though presumably that remains a possibility in some less developed areas of China that have not yet completed their socioeconomically “natural” demographic transition). More likely problems may be policy credibility, administrator morale, and intergenerational fairness – problems that a managed raising of birth limits might avoid. A further problem is that, to the extent that couples are already having fewer children than policy allows, simply “abandoning” current limits is unlikely to reverse China’s current ultra-low fertility. (On the overall trajectory of China’s demographic transition see Wang 2011.)

Professor Huang is also correct  that the policy is no longer as drastic and draconian as it attempted to be in the early 1980s (and actually was again by the early 1990s – Winckler 1999). Nevertheless, I personally doubt that current policy is “no longer ... enforced.” The PRC retains the strong disincentives to neglect birth work that it has institutionalized in its periodic evaluations of the performance of local officials. They still stand to lose pay, prestige, and promotions for lax enforcement of birth limits, which is why local officials sometimes still go to such outrageous lengths to enforce them. Meanwhile, some leniency toward rural couples IS the post-1984 policy, not a recent “relaxation.” On whether the rural norm is now two children per couple, one would like some data. For example, in some advanced rural areas (in prosperous Zhejiang), couples’ own practice is actually close to one child, considerably BELOW policy requirements (Cai 2010). Evidently for these advanced rural areas, enforcement is not only not lax, it has become irrelevant (as Huang notes for cities).

It is true that, as part of its shift from plan to market, the PRC has largely replaced administrative punishments with money fines. But relatively few people can easily afford those fines: even for the first unauthorized child, they are many times average local annual disposable income, and much more for additional unauthorized children. To the extent that some people do choose to afford the fines, that does not constitute lax enforcement: again, that IS the policy! It is also true that a relatively VERY few wealthy people go abroad to have unauthorized children (and for better medical care and foreign citizenships for the children). But they do that in part because, overall WITHIN China, existing birth limits are still strictly enforced. (Incidentally – not mentioned by Huang but a common journalistic misinterpretation –  increasing application of the rule that couples both of whom are “only children” can have two children is also not a recent “relaxation” of policy: that rule was astutely built into policy planning from the beginning, to permit an automatic gradual transition beyond the one-child limit.)

Professor Huang is also correct that evidently the government finds it difficult to change existing policy. No doubt the policy has created vested interests that oppose change. On the basis of Western political science, it is a plausible conjecture that the birth planning bureaucracy might be such an interest, which it may well be. Nevertheless, that conjecture overlooks several facts. Strictly limiting births has been a policy that national political leaders have imposed on national birth program leaders, often over the latters’ objections. From the beginning, it has been those most professionally involved with reproductive policy who have resisted too drastic and draconian policies (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005, 113-119; Greenhalgh 2008, 121-124). As for the present, I personally know several high national officials in birth planning who would prefer a two child policy, and who advocate that within policy circles. In any case, the birth planning system could still have plenty to do under a two-child policy, or even under no birth limits at all. For nearly two decades that “bureaucracy” has been reorienting itself toward actually delivering useful reproductive health services – contraception, perinatal health, sexual health, and other aspects of population “quality” –  which the birth system is better staffed and funded to do than the health system (Winckler 2005). The birth system could even become a vehicle for policies to INCREASE births in developed areas. So, by accident, the birth planning “bureaucracy” has become a potentially valuable institutional resource, unusual for a developing country, and perhaps even for some allegedly developed areas (say Texas).

Professor Huang is also correct that birth policy appears “sticky.” As he notes, that was the point of enshrining birth planning in the government Constitution (in 1978), declaring it a “basic national policy” (in 1982), and eventually passing it as a national Law (in 2001, see Winckler 2002.) However, there are other likely causes of stickiness that are worth noting. One of them is political: probably current top national political leaders are reluctant to take the political risk – individually and collectively – of altering this policy, which evidently is a “third rail” in Chinese policy-making. Amid the intense political infighting among national political leaders, anyone who took the initiative on this would expose himself to potential discrediting by rivals. Another likely cause of stickiness is prudential: over thirty years the government has built up a mass habit of largely voluntary compliance with birth limits and other reproductive policies. Should the PRC jeopardize that achievement, as for example one might do with Americans’ habit of paying income tax voluntarily, if the USA started changing the terms of that obligation? Finally, a further cause of stickiness is even ethical: how to respect the sacrifice of the generation or so that complied with birth limits, even while transitioning toward different rules for later generations. As in war, past sacrifice is not a reason to persist in a losing policy. Nevertheless, prudent policymakers would acknowledge the sacrifice. On the instructions of the Hu-Wen administration, the birth system has begun new social programs to compensate past compliers, something else that the birth system could continue to do even in the absence of birth limits (Greenhalgh and Winckler 2005, 172-176).

Professor Huang is also correct that, by now, most Chinese accept the PRC’s rationale for birth limits. He MAY be correct that this is a case of successful national brain-washing. Nevertheless, it might be respectful to individual Chinese to allow for the possibility that at least some of them – amid their crowded cities and competitive lives, appalling pollution and dwindling resources – might have their own reasons for concluding that some reproductive restraint has been appropriate. Particularly given that, by now, many couples choose to have even fewer children than policy would permit them. It might also be respectful of national policy-makers to consider the possibility that – for some populations, under some circumstances – allowing a population to reproduce itself absolutely at will might not remain an absolute right.

Professor Huang is also correct that birth limits are a domestic and foreign political liability for the PRC, dramatically reinforced by recent flagrant abuses, such as the local persecution of local rights activist Chen Guangcheng in Shandong and recent local insistence on a forced late abortion in Shaanxi. Interestingly, the regime seems to have succeeded in muting domestic discussion of the rights activist’s case, but allowed broad expression of public outrage at the late abortion case. (My June 2012 interlocutors argued that the government could not have prevented the latter expression.) These episodes are indeed troubling, particularly to me, as someone who intermittently worked to help reform the birth system with the PRC’s national birth commission and the PRC office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). A main purpose of the 2001 national Law was to define what local implementors of birth limits are NOT allowed to do, and to give citizens who feel that their “vital interests” have been violated by implementors some tools with which to seek redress (Winckler 2002). Not only was that the intention of national reformers, it was a recourse promoted also by UNFPA within its model counties for demonstrating reforms. Such recourse is exactly what Chen Guangcheng was attempting. And look what happened to him: 0utrageous persecution by the local authorities whose illegal behavior he was challenging and no rescue by national political or program leaders!

What is one to make of these recent abuses? Certainly not excuse them. Nevertheless, for general insight into current PRC governance, it is worth considering how such incidents could happen. The main point is that the central government remains largely dependent on provincial and local governments to implement policies. This is particularly so in social policy, for which the national government sets general policy directions, but whose supervision and implementation falls to provincial and local governments. Such central dependence on localities was the interpretation of my academic interlocutors in Beijing in June 2012 (who, by the way, were just as outraged over these recent incidents as anyone else). But why, I demanded to know, has the central government not conspicuously punished those local officials, particularly since their actions further seriously damaged China’s international reputation? The answer was that, although they may not have been fired or prosecuted, those local officials’ clumsy handling of both population and law-and-order issues guarantees that they will NEVER be promoted! I certainly hope my interlocutors were correct, and that all local officials in China have taken note.


Cai, Yong 2010. “China’s below-replacement fertility: Government policy or socioeconomic development?” Population and Development Review 36,3 (September), 419–440.

Greenhalgh, Susan 2008. Just one child: Science and policy in Deng’s China. Berkeley CA: University of California Press.

Wang, Feng 2011. “The future of a demographic overachiever: Long-term implications of the demographic transition in China .” Population and Development Review 37, Supplement (January), 173–190.

Winckler, Edwin A. 1999. “Re-enforcing state birth planning." In Transition from communism in China: institutional and comparative analyses, edited by Edwin A. Winckler. Boulder CO: Lynne Rienner, 181-203.

Winckler, Edwin A. 2002. “Chinese reproductive policy at the turn of the millennium.” Population and Development Review 28,3 (September), 1-40.

Winckler, Edwin A. 2005. “Maximizing the impact of Cairo on China.” In Where human rights begin: Health, sexuality, and women in the new millennium, edited by Wendy Chavkin and Ellen Chesler. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 204-234.

Winckler, Edwin A. and Susan Greenhalgh 2005. Governing China’s population: From Leninist to neoliberal biopolitics. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Response by Yanzhong Huang

My post “Time for China to Abandon China’s Population Control Policy” generated some heated responses and discussions, which I found quite encouraging. I must admit that when I was preparing the blog I had in mind an op-ed piece, not a scholarly article. It is therefore a surprise that while Edwin Winckler agrees with the main overall points of my article, in his recent post he raises questions about some specific arguments and details of the blog. I thank Mr. Winckler for taking the time to respond to the points in my blog. Let me simply address his concerns one by one:

  1. Can, or should, any form of birth control policy be abandoned in China? Mr. Winckler believes that “not only is this not realistic politically, probably it would be imprudent policy.” First of all, if we agree that the rationale of introducing the policy is questionable and its implementation incurs more costs than benefits, why is abandoning it an “imprudent” policy? Second, why is this not realistic politically? If the regime managed to disband the people’s communes and decollectivize the agriculture in the early 1980s, why can it not jettison a counterproductive and unpopular policy? Current leaders are neither the beneficiaries nor the formulators of the birth control policy, and dismantling the policy should help them gain political capital.  Further, a gradualist approach (“better to adjust the policy incrementally, to see what happens”) – sorry, I must flatly assert – does not make much sense and is often an excuse used by Chinese family planning bureaucrats to resist change. After all, a population upsurge has not been found in Jicheng of Shanxi Province, the only county in China where one child policy has intentionally not been implemented.
  2. Mr. Winckler also challenges my argument that birth control policy is no longer as strictly enforced as in the 1980s. He argues: a) “some leniency toward rural couples IS the post-1984 policy, not a recent ’relaxation’”; and b) “I personally doubt that current policy is ’no longer ... strictly enforced,’” because “relatively few people can easily afford those fines.” His second argument does not nullify my assertion. By no means does my post imply that the policy is not strictly enforced – indeed, it indicates, the one-child policy is still largely in place in major Chinese cities (i.e., only couples who are only children can have second birth). And, as evidenced in the Feng Jianmei case, the pursuit by local officfials for family planning fines in the underdeveloped provinces can lead to sustained violence and coercion.  That being said, I do not know whether the statement that “relatively few people can easily afford those fines” should be considered “imprecise in some details,” – what percentage of people can afford the fines is ultimately an empirical question – although I must say (and I believe Mr. Winckler would agree) more people today can afford them than before.  According to a Boston Consulting Group survey, China today has over a million millionaires. I also found it hard to buy Mr. Winckler’s statement on the abandoning of the one-child limit in 1984.  Growing up in China’s countryside, I did not observe any significant change in the one-child policy in 1984. Neither my sister nor my brother (whose kids were born after 1984) were allowed to have a second child.  Indeed, it was not until the end of the last century that most Chinese provinces permit couples who both are only children or those in the countryside whose first birth is a daughter to have a second child. Henan province did not officially implement the “two-child” policy until November 2011.
  3. Mr. Winckler also claims that my argument on the impact of the vested interest “overlooks several facts,” including that “strictly limiting births has been a policy that national political leaders have imposed on national birth program leaders, often over the latters’ objections.” The policy might be imposed from above despite objections from family planning officials. But this occurred when family planning bureaucracy was extremely weak. Over time, as family planning officials developed their own “stand-alone” administrative capacities, their incentive structure may have changed and they may also gain significant autonomy to influence, even challenge, central leaders’ policy making authority. Several leading national officials may prefer a two child policy, but that still does not nullify my argument on the overall impact of the vested interests.  In 2008, the Director of State Population and Family Planning Commission announced that China’s birth control policy would not change for at least another decade.
  4. Mr. Winckler also notes that “there are other likely causes of [institutional] stickiness that are worth noting,” and “ it might be respectful to individual Chinese to allow for the possibility that at least some of them ... might have their own reasons for concluding that some reproductive restraint has been appropriate.” I do not deny such possibilities, but I have to say that they are unconfirmed theories at best. Unfortunately, my short post was unable to exhaust all the possibilities for explaining the lack of profound change in China’s population control policy.