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Second child about couples' aspirations

By Stuart Basten (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2016-04-24 15:19

A rather remarkable turnaround has occurred in China. For a country famous for having the most comprehensive set of policies designed to limit births, it is now introducing policies to support parents who have a second child - from tax relief to possibly extending maternity leave and free education.

For some time now, studies have observed family planning officials in large cities actively encouraging couples to take advantage of their rights to have a second child. In this way, local governments could become more proactive in designing policies to support couples to have a second child.

Governments across the Asia-Pacific region have been introducing increasingly far-reaching policies in recent years to support and encourage childbearing, to stem rapidly aging populations resulting from low fertility rates. Perhaps the most expansive and famous is Singapore. Elsewhere, policies to support childbearing, financially and in terms of childcare and parental leave, have been introduced in Japan and South Korea.

Second child about couples' aspirations

Yet in each of these settings, fertility has stayed resolutely low; not least in Singapore, which has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. This is because the financial subsidies simply do not come close to offsetting the high costs of childbearing in these countries.

Costs are further exaggerated by expectations of huge investment in education and other activities, sometimes called education fever. These policies are also not able to adequately address some of the more fundamental reasons for limiting family sizes, such as fragile employment and the "triple burden" placed on women to work and take primary responsibility for both children and elderly parents.

There is now a broad agreement that it is not just the one-child policy that has pushed - and kept - fertility down in China. As such, just changing the policy is likely to have only a limited impact.

Assuming that many of the other reasons for low fertility are common to both China and elsewhere in Asia, and given the limited success in other countries and regions in turning birth rates around, we may question how effective policies to support childbearing will be at increasing the Chinese fertility rate.

This, I think, misses the point. If the new policies were set out to encourage childbearing and achieve certain key population goals, then they may well not succeed. But the language of the new policy does not appear to suggest this. In a break from the "old" way of talking about family planning, the "new" language is much more about "supporting" than "encouraging".

This is not just semantics. If the new policies are designed to support citizens to be able to meet their aspirations in terms of family, work and life, then their success should be judged on this rather than the birth rate in years to come.

Switching from the world's most restrictive family planning system to offering incentives for childbirth is a remarkable turnaround. But it may well be that the truly revolutionary aspect of this policy change is the switch from "shaping" citizens' actions to meet the needs of the nation toward "supporting and enabling" them to meet their own personal aspirations.

The author is an associate professor of social policy with the University of Oxford's Department of Social Policy and Intervention. The views do not neccessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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