China May Relax One-Child Policy

After 30 years of prohibiting couples from having more than one child, China may loosen the reins. Melinda Liu, Newsweek's Beijing correspondent looks at the changing of an unpopular law.

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It's been more than 30 years since China passes one child only law in hopes of curbing its rapid population growth. The policy has worked. Since then, reports say it's prevented tens of millions of births, but it's creating a lot of problems too. The law is not enforced with regularity. And if you're rich and powerful enough, you can get around it. And that's created a lot of resentment in Chinese society. And on a practical level, there simply aren't enough younger people enough around anymore to take care of an ever aging population.

Last week, a high level family planning official in China said it may be time to roll back the one child only law and boast the limit from one child to two.

Melinda Liu is the Beijing correspondent for Newsweek magazine and she joins me now on the phone.

Hey, Melinda.

Ms. MELINDA LIU (Beijing Correspondent, Newsweek): Hi.

MARTIN: Thanks for being with us this morning. This isn't the first time Chinese officials have talked about changing this law, correct?

Ms. LIU: That's absolutely corrects. It's a very controversial issue even within the government, you know, not to mention in society. And so every once and a while, an official who personally or who institutionally might have, you know, might have something to gain by seeing a change will make a comment suggesting that a change is coming. And then other officials will come out and deny it. And that's exactly what happened over this past week.

The bottom-line is that this policy has been actually relaxing over the decades. And the bigotries for it to change more now is the fact that the government simply cannot take care of all the elderly people who are looking at life, you know, in their twilight years with only one child who may or may not take very good care of them.

MARTIN: Let's step back for a minute, Melinda. Explain - you say the law has been relaxed since it was passed in '79. What does it say now?

Ms. LIU: Right now, it has - there are quite a number of exceptions to what we know as the one child only policy. It's actually a misnomer. For example, if you're living in a country side, if you are a rural resident as suppose to an urban couple, you can actually have two children and most of them do. Basically it says that if you have a child who is a daughter first, you can try again to have a son. And the reason for that is it's a very traditional thing that in the country side, male children were more important because they brought in income, they help in the field. Where the girl would be married off and would join another, you know, would join her husband's family. So that's why more than 60 percent of the Chinese population lives in the countryside - they can have two children.

Since its inception, there have been other types of exceptions made. In cases of divorce, in late '70s, divorce were very rare. Now it's actually much more common. And if a man marries a woman who's never had a child before, they can have another child and he can get divorced and marry someone else who's never borne a child - they can have another child. In fact, you know, men have been using this loophole to have several children.

MARTIN: And there are other ways that people can get around this one, right? I mean you can just decide that you'll just pay the fine and have another kid.

Ms. LIU: Absolutely. And this is what's causing a very sort of emotional kind of friction between the haves and have-nots in Chinese society. Basically the fine is significant. It can be up to six or even eight time the annual income of a couple. So this is no small thing. But if you're very wealthy - and also if you have connections. So many officials, they use their connection. Basically it's a form of corruption to sort of skirt around these regulations, you can end up with more than one child. Where as if you're poor and don't have any connections, don't have any money, you basically are under a lot of pressure to follow the regulation.

MARTIN: What happens if a family gets caught? Let's say, someone who doesn't have a whole lot of money, someone in the rural parts of China. What if someone finds out that they've broken the law? What happens?

Ms. LIU: It can be - it varies from place to place. Usually the first thing would be to try to get the family to pay the fine that the law requires. Of course, not all of them can and in some extreme cases, local authorities have even forcibly sort of confiscated assets from the family equivalent to what the fine would be. Now, this happened in one community where quite a number of families have violated the regulation and in fact it triggered a riot. You know, basically the families who were affected and having their assets confiscated fought back has became just a chaotic situation which just simply goes to show how volatile emotions are over this issue.

There are also cases of families who have given their extra children up to adoption. And there are even "orphanages," quote, unquote, that take care of these so called orphans but in fact their blood families still visit them and consider them their children. It's just that they are technically orphans.

MARTIN: So they're fake orphanages essentially that have been set up to get around this.

Ms. LIU: Yes, basically. I heard of their first in connection with catholic communities. There are Catholics in China who follow the Vatican and therefore are against using family planning techniques.

MARTIN: Melinda if officials decide that they want to indeed start rolling the law back and boost the limit from one to two, what difference will that make? Won't there still be people out there who go about this same kind of tricky way to get around the law in order to have three or four kids?

Ms. LIU: There probably will be. At the same time, there's an interesting phenomenon among your Urban couples. More and more of whom decide they don't want any kids or decides that just one kid is fine. Of course the violations will continue. What will be different though if there is a relaxation of the one child policy is there'll be probably be somewhat less resentment of that policy. What you have to understand is what the government is very keen to avoid is being blamed for something bad happening. And of course, the bad thing that's happening now is this aging crisis, where you have a lot of elderly parents who fear or indeed have no kid who are able to take care of them and they're very lonely. Maybe they've had children who have emigrated overseas or just working in other parts of the country.

MARTIN: And lastly Melinda, how has China's image been affected on a global stage as a result of this policy and is there any connection to the fact that the Olympics are coming up, is this talk of rolling it back away to blusterous image ahead of the Olympics?

Ms. LIU: I wouldn't say that there's a direct Olympic linkage here, but I do think there is an indirect one. And it very much the image issue that you brought up. Basically, the very astringent and even ruthless brutal techniques that have been associated with the one child family in the past. I'm talking specifically, you know, early '80s, in the very beginning. Some have long…

MARTIN: Forced abortions or forced sterilizations.

Ms. LIU: Yes, exactly. Forced abortions, forced sterilization. You know, late term abortion has done a lot to tarnish China's human rights record. And of course, this is the year, now, with the Olympics coming in August. This is the year where the government wants, you know, everything to be seen as perfect here. And their doing a lot of things, you know, on a sort of P.R. level to try to sort of mute criticism of their human rights, the patchy human rights record.

MARTIN: Well, we will drill down further into that in our next segment actually.

Melinda, thank you so much.

Melinda Lui is the Beijing correspondent for Newsweek magazine. She's got a new piece out this week; exploring China's family situation - evolving family situation with a possible repeal or rolling back of the one child only law.

Hey, thanks, Melinda.

Ms. LIU: My pleasure.

MARTIN: Take care.

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