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China's relaxed one-child policy may have little effect

Beijing approved a wide-ranging package of reforms on Saturday (28.12.2013), including a relaxation of the country's infamous "one-child" policy. Many Chinese, though, say the new law won't make much difference.

One of China's biggest international stars, the 62-year-old film director Zhang Yimou, has issued a public apology. In an open letter he admitted that yes, he and his wife had three children, meaning he was in breach of China's one-child policy. Zhang said he would cooperate with the investigating authorities and accept his lawful punishment.

Reports began circulating in May that the world-famous director had fathered more than one child. At first, it seemed that he would go unpunished, but then the family-planning authorities went after him. The accusations could cost him dearly. Chinese people caught breaking the country's family-planning policy are required to pay a "social compensation fee" based on their annual income, and there is speculation that Zhang's fine may run into the equivalent of tens of millions of euros.

Exceptions to the rule

Director Zhang Yimou, (center), with actors Christian Bale (left) and Ni Ni (right) on the red carpet at the 2012 Berlinale (c) picture-alliance/landov

Director Zhang Yimou (center) faces huge fines after admitting he and his wife have 3 children

Since 1980, China has enforced a strict family policy under which a married couple is only allowed to have one child. There are certain exceptions: In the countryside, for example, farmers are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl. Those belonging to Chinese minority groups are also exempt. Couples in the cities are also allowed to have a second child if both parents are themselves only children.

The revelations about Zhang Yimou's three children created a tremendous sense of indignation among ordinary Chinese people. They saw it as evidence that, unlike them, the rich and famous are able simply to flout the rules, disregarding the family planning legislation and accepting the astronomical fines the state imposes upon them because they were in a position to pay for the privilege of having more children.

Now that the Chinese leadership has relaxed some of the strictures of the strict family planning law, more Chinese people will be able to claim exemptions. In the future, only one parent in an urban couple will have to be an only child in order for them to qualify for permission to have two children.

No baby boom

Beijing resident Lou Xia with her 5-year-old daughter (C) DW/S Ballweg

Lou Xia, a mother of one, would love a big family

So far, Lou Xia has stuck to the rules. The 36-year-old from Beijing has one five-year-old daughter. "I always dreamed of having a lively, noisy family," she says. Now it may be possible for her to fulfill her dream of having a second child.

Lou Xia is happy about the change in the law - but for the majority of Chinese people, it's of limited interest. When already existing exceptions are taken into account, it's estimated that the change will only make a difference for a third of remaining families. "There's not going to be a baby boom on account of this alone," says Liang Zhongtan, a population expert at the Academy of Social Sciences in Shanghai.

What is perhaps even more significant is that, nowadays, many couples don't actually want a second child. "We already have to invest so much time and money in our child's education; I don't know how we could do that with two," says Manlin Xiong. She works for Chinese state television, CCTV, in Beijing, and she has a five-year-old daughter.

A generation of 'little emperors'

Thirty years of the one-child policy have left a deep mark on Chinese society. Because they were only allowed one baby, most families have tended to focus everything on their only child in the hope of giving him or her the very best start in life.

Classroom full of young Chinese children wearing red and sitting at their desks (c) DW/S. Ballweg

A generation of only children finds itself under intense pressure to succeed

Many of China's "little emperors" are pampered, cosseted, and afforded every possible opportunity. For China's rising middle class, it has become the norm for children of just four or five to be kept busy with in a string of extra-curricular activities, such as piano, ballet, English lessons or swimming.

"There's so much competition: We have to make sure our children are well-prepared for the future," groans Manlin Xiong. Stroking her daughter's head affectionately, she says, "I wouldn't have the energy for a second child now."

Many other parents feel the same. This is why the deputy director of the Family Planning Commission, Wang Peian, estimates that the new changes to the one-child policy will only result in an extra two million births over the next three years.

Aging population

Two elderly Chinese men with long white beards, in traditional dress (C) AFP/Getty Images

China needs more young people to finance pensions and care for the old

If this is the case, relaxing the rules might ease China's demographic problems, but it won't solve them. Over the past three decades the one-child policy has prevented an estimated 400 million births - and the impact on society has been massive.

Professor Du Peng is an expert on population aging at Beijing's People's University. "Who's going to finance people's pensions in the future? Who will take care of the old people?" he asks. These days, every third family in China has only one child. The professor believes it's good that the family planning policy is being amended.

But not everybody agrees - including those at the Family Planning Commission. They're responsible for checking up on people to make sure they're sticking to the rules - by asking at their workplace, for example, or around the neighborhood. Some of these employees may lose their jobs in future, or at the very least will have to tighten their belts - their incomes are likely to go down if people have less reason to pay bribes.

There are also those for whom the reform does not go far enough. "We have to solve the fundamental problem," says the population expert Liang Zhongtan. He describes the state control of family planning as a violation of human rights; and, like many other Chinese, he believes that after more than 30 years it's time to do away with the one-child policy altogether.

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