IIn much of China, prevailing local regulations and societal mores make it nearly impossible to have a third child — or any child at all if you are unmarried or LGBT. But that will soon change for the more than 83 million people in the southwestern province of Sichuan.
The provincial health commission announced last month that from February 15 there will be no limit to the number of births a person can register, nor will there be other restrictions on who can register new births. Previously, only married couples could register up to three children. While other births might go unregistered, as many have, such children and their parents could be deprived of access to vital public resources as a result. The new policy, issued internally on December 29 and published in January, is valid for five years.
Sichuan’s rule changes are a startling reversal for a province that only began relaxing its one-child policy less than a decade ago, but it is particularly hot on the heels of China, which is experiencing its first population decline in more than 60 years years experienced. Sichuan’s political reform has been widely perceived as an initiative to boost falling fertility rates and help combat the country’s aging population.
Continue reading: China’s population is shrinking – and graying. Here’s what it means for the future
Experts have called the change a desperate move by the government. However, the easing of restrictions on new birth registration signals not only a political development but also a potential cultural one – one that may be necessary to meet the daunting demographic challenge facing China.
“I think this shift, like in people’s minds, has been in the minds of policymakers for quite some time,” says Zheng Mu, associate professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping have sought to reverse decades of strenuous efforts to limit population growth as older generations become increasingly younger, threatening to hamper economies and strain social services.
In 2016, the CCP changed its national one-child policy to a two-child policy, and in 2021 it raised the limit to three. Since then, the government has offered incentives for people to have more children, including cash grants, tax breaks and low-cost child-rearing programs. However, as China remains a traditionally conservative country, these benefits were largely limited to married couples.
A woman and two children prepare to board a bullet train at Chengdu South Railway Station in Sichuan, China, 26 December 2022.
Liu Zhongjun – China News Service/VCG/Getty Images
Why is the policy change in Sichuan significant?
China’s national family planning policy does not account for single parents or same-sex parents (since marriage is defined as between a man and a woman). While neither the Population and Family Planning Act nor the Marriage Act specifically prohibit unmarried parenting — and the latter supposedly guarantees equal rights for children born out of wedlock — many local governments, which often better reflect social stigmas, have enacted stricter rules on “unplanned” parenting. Children, including those born to unmarried parents or those born in excess of the allowable limit per couple.
In many parts of the country, public services, including health care, depend on registration at birth, which requires marriage. Unmarried mothers can be denied maternity leave, and unregistered children can be denied access to education and, later, employment. In some places, such families even face hefty fines.
Mu tells TIME that having children outside of marriage is perceived as “irresponsible behavior” or even “privileged” because of the high costs involved. In addition to the legal hurdles, there is also “a moral consequence, a moral price that is associated with it”.
When the Sichuan Health Commission announced its birth registration reform, many on Chinese social media interpreted it as encouraging people to have illegitimate children. The provincial government has said that is not the case and that the policy change is simply aimed at conducting better population surveillance. However, the new rules lower a significant barrier that may have prevented some unmarried people from having children.
“This institutional change,” says Mu, “definitely shows a shift towards more social change.”
A child poses for a photo in Tianfu Square during a flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Chengdu, Sichuan, Oct. 1, 2022.
Wu Ke – VCG/Getty Images
Will the new policy help solve China’s population problem?
Sichuan isn’t the first local government to relax birth control policies. In 2021, for example, Shanghai removed the requirement of a marriage certificate to apply for maternity benefits, and last year Guangdong province, like Sichuan now, lifted all restrictions on birth registration and allowed unlimited registrations without a marriage requirement for the stated goal of better population surveillance. It’s too early to tell if these changes have affected birth rates.
Adam Cheung, an associate professor of sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University who studies China, tells TIME that legalizing unmarried parenthood won’t necessarily increase the number of children born to unmarried parents appreciably, as society still frowns on it. “Extra-marital birth [is] legal in other East Asian societies, but they account for only a small fraction of all births[s] because it’s still less favored, if not stigmatized, in these societies,” he wrote via email.
In addition, a broader range of demographic and economic factors also play an important role in the country’s fertility rate. In large part due to the country’s longstanding one-child policy and a notable cultural preference for sons, China today faces one of the most skewed gender ratios in the world: as of 2022, there are 32 million more males than females, a significant increase shows effects on marriage and birth rates.
Not to mention that many younger people in China no longer see marriage and childbirth as the ultimate goals for success, particularly among city dwellers pursuing higher education and careers. And despite the country’s rapid economic growth in recent years, many young people still struggle with high living costs and a lack of job opportunities.
Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social sciences at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, told TIME before announcing the Sichuan policy that a “pronatalist agenda” alone will not solve China’s demographic problems.
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