Monday, February 9, 2015
Co-Editor Cindy Soohoo writes on a shift in China's one child policy. Tomorrow's post will discuss the differences between US - China policy in both motivation and social policy in addressing women's equality.
Prof. Soohoo writes:
After years of pursuing a one-child policy, China is taking steps to try to increase its birth rate, but is finding that it’s not so easy. The current policy changes respond to demographic shifts caused by a low birth rate and aging population. The prospect of a smaller labor pool saddled with supporting an aging population has fueled fears that China will “get old before it gets rich.” Promoting women’s equality may be the key to addressing China’s labor and population problem.
China’s one child policy has been criticized for employing coercive tactics that violate women’s reproductive autonomy and for triggering a gender imbalance in the population due to a historic societal preference for sons. Human rights bodies have denounced abusive tactics employed pursuant to the policy including forced abortion and sterilization. They have also emphasized the need to address the structural causes of son preference by eliminating gender stereotypes and promoting women’s equality. The same emphasis on improving the status of women, including eliminating barriers faced by working mothers, will go a long way to support China’s current efforts to encourage births and economic growth.
Since China’s current 1.5 birth rate is substantially below the 2.1 rate needed to maintain a stable population, last year it decided to allow parents a second child if one of the parents was an only child (the prior policy allowed only two children if both parents were only children). But the number of couples that applied to have second children is much lower than expected. This is especially true in urban areas like Shanghai. At the end of 2014, only 5% of couples in Shanghai eligible to have a second baby applied to do so.
Chinese reticence to take advantage of the new policy is consistent with regional trends. East Asia has the lowest fertility rate in the world, and some demographers say that China’s birth rates would have declined even without the one child policy. There are dire forecasts about the future of Japan, where the birth rate is currently 1.4, and social security costs are projected to be 24.4% of the country’s GDP by 2026. Last summer, South Korea’s birth rate dropped to 1.19 leading a government research service to declare that at current rates, its population will be extinct by 2750.
Reports suggest for the growing middle class in these countries the cost of child-rearing, including housing, child-care and education have become prohibitively expensive. An official in Shanghai cited the high cost of raising children and the negative impact of having a child on a woman’s career development as driving the lack of interest in having a second child.
Promoting women’s equality and economic opportunity can make it easier for families to bear the costs of larger families and expand the work force. But often parents face substantial hurdles in the workplace, forcing women to choose between work and motherhood. In Japan 70% of women stop working after having a child due in part to inflexible work hours and lack of male participation in household chores and children rearing. And if they return to work they end up in low wage, part-time or contract positions. The loss of female talent has led economists to suggest that closing the gender gap could substantially improve Japan’s GDP.
Japan and South Korea have funded match-making and dating services to address their low birth rates. Adopting family friendly policies that encourage and support working parents could have a greater long term impact. Japan’s prime minister is reportedly considering a number of policies to encourage women to stay in the workforce after having children, including increasing the availability of affordable child care, changing tax rules favoring single income couples, encouraging more flexible hours in the workplace, and encouraging companies to employ more women in senior positions.
The current demographic pressures may cause China to further relax regulation of family sizes. But, if China is serious about increasing its birth rate and increasing the labor pool it must ensure that women have equal economic opportunities and working families have the support they need.