In a radical departure from its former one- and two-child policies, China’s Communist party announced on June 1 that it would allow married couples to have up to three children.
The decision — borne of a desperate attempt to raise its declining birth rate — is a measure that reflects the greater global anxiety of slowing population growth.
China’s reaction to its declining birth rate, however, signals the continuation of the Communist party’s social control through reproductive mandate.
A brief timeline of China’s reproductive restrictions
In 2020, 12 million babies were born in China — the lowest number of births the country recorded since 1961. Since the 2010 census, China grew by 72 million people — a larger increase than the entire populations of Britain or France. But China is an industrial country that relies on a growing young workforce to run its factories, and a burgeoning older population is a threat to this growth model.
In the late 1960s, women in China had an average of 6.3 children each. When China’s population exceeded 800 million people in the 1970s, it imposed its infamous one-child policy. Methods of enforcement included broadening employment opportunities for those who complied, financial incentives, and, in some cases, forced abortions and sterilizations.
The policy did a lot more harm than good. China is patriarchal; sons inherit family names and are responsible for property and care of elders. While gender norms are changing, the one-child rule produced an incentive to only have male children, resulting in female infanticide and sex-selective abortions. In more recent history, the surplus of single men in China has driven bride trafficking. Moreover, the births of unauthorized children during this time were often hidden from authorities — resulting in a generation of undocumented children facing barriers in the realms of education and employment.
Beijing’s newest policy change comes as a relief to some parents with more than two children. The new policy also improves maternity leave and workplace protections to encourage childbearing. Single mothers, however, will still lack access to benefits.
A project rooted in ethnic discrimination
While women in China are being incentivized to have more children, the opposite is the case for Uyghur Muslim women in Xinjiang. According to The Jamestown Foundation, documents from 2019 reveal plans for mass sterilization in two rural Uyghur counties of 14 and 34 percent, respectively, of all married women of childbearing age. Since then, the campaign has increased in funding and scope. In 2018, 80 percent of all IUD placements in China were performed in Xinjiang — a province with only 1.8 percent of the nation’s total population. Between 2015 and 2018, population growth rates fell by 84 percent in the largest Uyghur minority regions.
The majority of these sterilizations and IUD placements are not consensual. Individuals who refuse the procedures face steep fines or internment, where they are subject to sexual violence and party indoctrination. This is all a part of Beijing’s greater plan to force next generations of Uyghur civilians into submission through re-education and control over intergenerational cultural transmission.
No individual freedom without reproductive freedom
Neither bodily autonomy nor individual freedom are possible without the ability to control when, whether, and with whom to have children. China’s policies — past and present — have showcased the danger of inhumane measures like population control on families and ethnic minorities.
Controlling citizens’ reproduction is not only unjust, but also completely unnecessary for achieving slower population growth. Between the 1960s and 1990s, several East Asian countries faced rapid population growth and rising resource scarcity. After the 1970s oil boom, Indonesia — a primarily agricultural and oil producing country — saw an economic decline. While the government introduced deregulation measures to make the economy more efficient, the country faced rapid and unequal population growth across islands, which deterred further economic growth. Instead of enacting punitive or coercive measures to achieve lower fertility rates, many East and Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia, invested heavily in human capital, as well as policies that promoted increased spending on education. Japan legalized contraceptives and abortion in 1947 and 1948, respectively. Thailand, South Korea, and Indonesia saw the rise of subsidized family planning and distribution clinics in the middle of the century.
There are different paths to low fertility, but coercion and state-sanctioned violence are never the right ones. As we’ve seen in every country that has made such investments: social and economic development, in combination with rights-based approaches to family planning, is enough.