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As China Lifts One-Child Policy, Many Chinese Respond With Snark

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China's government had been suggesting for some time that it would lift a 35-year-old policy of restricting most urban families to one child. But the formal announcement on Thursday still seemed to mark a milestone.

The decision by the ruling Communist Party's Central Committee still needs to be approved by the country's Parliament before becoming national policy.

Many Chinese who want to have more children welcomed the announcement, as do the many who see the one-child policy as an anachronism as China's population ages and its labor pool shrinks.

But on the Internet, the announcement triggered a tsunami of snarky comments.

"After decades of being forced not to have children," one female netizen asked, "will the government now force us to have children?"

Other netizens took 1960s-era Cultural Revolution propaganda posters and put new, mocking slogans on them.

"Reward families with two children, fine those with one, and arrest all DINKs (double income, no kids)."

"If you refuse to have more children," warned another, "we will artificially inseminate your whole village!"

Wang Feng, a University of California, Irvine sociologist who studies China's population policies, says the sarcasm with which netizens regard the policy announcement is telling.

"I think the message people are sending out it is: 'Look, you guys, the policymakers, are so out of touch with the Chinese public.' "

Wang says it's a miracle such a controversial policy could stay in place for 35 years.

A Policy That Went Against Tradition

For centuries in China, not having any children was the ultimate insult to one's ancestors, and to the ethical order of Confucian society.

During the reform period, Chinese were taught that overpopulation was the root cause of China's backwardness and authoritarian politics.

This message was reinforced by the United Nations, World Bank and other Western proponents of population control in developing nations.

Wang says population control was part of the late leader Deng Xiaoping's plan to quadruple China's per capita GDP between 1980 and 2000.

"Population control was made part of the political legitimacy, to reduce the number of people, and to increase the output, therefore to increase the per capita income."

At the same meeting where it announced the two-child policy yesterday, the Communist Party also announced a new economic plan for the next five years.

To help foreign audiences appreciate this Soviet-style blueprint, state media packaged it as a viral Internet video, complete with animated folk rock musicians, American-accented voiceovers and images of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The Communist Party has declared the one-child policy a success. They say it brought the birth rate down, which in turn helped China get richer faster.

At a symposium in Beijing earlier this year, People's University sociologist Zhou Xiaozheng said that, in fact, birth rates go down anywhere income and education levels go up.

"What's it got to do with family planning?" he snapped. "To claim credit for what was really an act of nature is ignorant, impotent, inhumane, immoral and shameless," he fulminated, as the crowd of students applauded approvingly.

Many liberal Chinese now see government efforts to design family and social structures as sheer folly and hubris. Some are influenced by the writings of the late Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who called such government intervention "fatal conceit."

Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer with the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, comments: "The idea that planners, with their limited individual knowledge, can be wiser than the collective wisdom one finds in cultures, or the spontaneous wisdom one finds generated by markets, is breathtaking arrogance."

"This most ambitious of all social policies ever undertaken," he adds, "can be expected to lead to the most massive unintended consequences of any social policy of all time."

The Communist Party emphasizes that family planning remains one of China's basic national policies, even if the limit for most families has been raised to two children.

But UC Irvine's Wang Feng says this is face-saving language the party issues as it retreats, and he is optimistic that the ultimate demise of population controls in China is just around the corner.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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