By Didi Kirsten Tatlow
New York Times
BEIJING >> For 36 years the Chinese state nearly turned out the lights on childbearing, ordering most families to have just one child and to focus instead on economic growth. An authoritative public letter to Communist Party members from the central government in September 1980 detailed the one-child policy.
The program was effective. In the city of Yichang in the central province of Hubei, the fertility rate today is just 0.72 children per woman, according to a study by city officials and Chinese academics that was reported by Pengpai, an online news website. That is one of the lowest in the country. Data from the Chinese government’s national census in 2010 puts the overall fertility rate at 1.18, below the replacement rate of more than 2.1.
So this week Yichang officials snapped on the lights again, issuing another public letter — this one to local party members and civil servants — urging them to fulfill their duty and procreate for China’s new two-child policy, which came into force nationwide on Jan. 1.
It said in part, “We require all party members and Communist Youth League members in city departments and companies, especially cadres at all levels, to stand at the forefront and take a high degree of responsibility for caring for the country’s happy future, the people’s welfare and their own descendants to come, by thoroughly implementing the meaning of the ‘two-child policy’ and using practical actions to lead the way in responding to the party’s call.”
It continued, “Young comrades should start with themselves, and older comrades should educate and monitor their children.”
Howls of amazement and resentment followed in Chinese news outlets and on social media.
In response to an article on Sina.com, one reader, Muranxuanxie lihua from Wuzhou, wrote: “In those years you fined everywhere. You beat people, tore down homes, confiscated livestock, and forced people to abort. Today you want to force people to have a second child.”
Another, who went by the name Xiaolong V8 from Beijing, wrote, “If housing prices fall by half, talk to me then about having a second child.”
Several days after it was published on the Yichang government website with the red stamps of a clutch of departments indicating wide local support, the letter disappeared, a sign it was politically sensitive. The appeal for more children could be seen as implicit criticism of Beijing’s population policies of the previous 36 years.
The public letter was daring, said Fuxian Yi, a Chinese medical scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a book on Chinese demographics, “Big Country, Empty Nest.”
Coupled with the scale of the reaction, Yi said he was nicknaming the letter the “Yichang Rising,” after a political uprising in the city in 1911, one of several that led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.
“I’m not surprised that Yichang is trying to promote births,” Yi said in an interview. “But I’m surprised at how they did it. Because unlike the northeast and Shanghai, which have similarly low rates and have requested policy relaxations from the government quietly, in private, it looks like Yichang completely bypassed the National Health and Family Planning Commission and just issued a public letter.”
The fact that it was removed appears to indicate it had not been approved, he said.
A person answering the telephone at the Yichang Family Planning and Health Department on Friday declined to comment, referring a caller to the Hubei provincial government in Wuhan.
Suggesting why the topic was delicate, the letter said if the depressed fertility rate continued, “it will create great hazards and harm to our city’s economy and the happiness of the masses.”
It listed as hazards the effects of very low birthrates on labor, production, the fabric of the family and old-age care.
Another, more mildly worded notice remains on the local government website. That one calls for everyone to fulfill the two-child policy, but also for an expansion of “family services” — cleaners and nannies, free hospital stays and services for women giving birth, more kindergartens and more accommodations at work for nursing mothers, among other things.
Yi predicted that the old-style exhortation would not work.
For decades, China’s economy has developed to cater mostly to one-child families. Housing, education and other costs are often high, based partly on the expectation a couple will only have one child. What is needed now, Yi said, is “more wealth distribution, old-age care, lower housing costs, lower population density in cities, more social services for children and lower child-raising costs” before a significant number of families will be prepared to take on the burden of a second child.