China's New Three-Child Policy

Heritage Explains

China's New Three-Child Policy

Do families exist to support the government or does government exist to support family?

The Chinese Communist Party recently announced they will increase the number of children families are allowed to have from two to three. This comes after historically low birth rates last year, and growing concerns that China will not have a population to keep up with the growth. But will it work? It poses the fundamental question: Does the family support government or does government support the family? This week, we talk about China's vested interest in controlling personal family decisions, how the U.S. should respond, and why a three-child policy will not help the Chinese People.

Tim Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher, and this is Heritage Explains.

Doescher: Hey mom, thanks so much for doing this. So we're doing this episode on now the three-child policy in China. I don't believe that economics and government were the reason you and dad decided to have children. So I wanted to get, first of all, the reason that you wanted to have children?

Mrs. Doescher: That was just a natural God-given desire, I think. I think people back then didn't think about it too much. You just get married and then you have kids, and that's kind of what you do.

Doescher: So why three children?

Mrs. Doescher: Well, actually we decided before we got married, we did discuss this part of it that we would only have two and I kind of went along with that. Okay. Yeah. Great. Then, fast forward to my two year old is no longer a baby, that was you, and that desire to have a third child became really great. So we talked about it and dad was not in favor at first, but then came around. So we ended up with a third child.

Doescher: So it had nothing to do with government or economics?

Mrs. Doescher: Oh no. No, not at all. Although, I'm sure your dad in his mind was kind of doing numbers the way he thinks with the child.

Doescher: That's a good point.

Mrs. Doescher: But no, it had nothing to do with that or the government. I really feel like God put that desire in me to just have another child. So children just make a family and to me is everything.

Doescher: That was a recent conversation I recorded with my mom. She's the greatest, and you'd have to make a stronger than Superman case for why yours is better. Now, clearly my parents wanted kids for a purpose greater than themselves. As you heard, one of the things though, my mom didn't mention as a motivator, economics and government. If that were the case, I feel like the conversation would have sounded way different and way less awesome. Now, compare my conversation to this CNN report.

Clip: China is hoping that three is a lucky number for families in the world's most populous nation. On Monday, the government announced it will allow couples to have up to three children instead of the current limit of two. The shift in policy comes after census data showed a sharp decline in births, a low of 10 million last year compared to nearly 18 million in 2016. Experts say the population in China is getting older with a smaller number of people in the workforce. The country's economic future could be at risk. Beijing's one child policy was in place for decades to slow the growth of China's population and reduce poverty. It was enforced with heavy fines and even forced abortions. But that strict policy relaxed a little bit five years ago, when the government allowed married couples to have two children. But even that failed to boost birth rates, many couple say it's just too expensive to raise children in cities.

Doescher: The contrast is stark, and I think the difference comes down to this. Does the family support government or does government support the family? This week we talked to Olivia Enos. She's a good friend of Heritage Explains and is a Senior Policy Analyst here at The Heritage Foundation. This week, she gives us insight into the now three-child policy in China, and how the U.S. should oppose the Chinese Communist Party's coercive family planning and support the rights of Chinese people to have as many children as they desire. We'll get into it after this.

Doescher: Olivia, it is so good to see you again and have you in the studio again for a another episode of Heritage Explains.

Olivia Enos: I know. It's so great to be in person.

Doescher: Yeah. I mean, it really is. I was also thinking too is, when you're in here it's never on a lighthearted issue. We're not talking about inflation. It's always talking about what China has been doing, what they're up to, and we're at it again.

Enos: Yeah.

Doescher: They announced recently that they are doing a three-child policy. So I just wanted to have you and to kind of catch us up to where they are. So from the beginning, why did China start dictating how many kids their citizens can have?

Enos: Yeah. I mean, I think that's one of the million dollar questions, but the Chinese Communist Party really does seek to control every aspect of society. I think they recognize in many ways the preeminence, the importance of family as a fundamental building block of society. So if they can control very personal decisions about when you have kids, how many kids you have, how big your family is going to be, then they can control other aspects of your life as well. This is like a very, very long history dating back to Mao, when he was actually controlling family size in the opposite direction. He was encouraging people, "Have more kids. Have more kids. Because this will make China more powerful." Then you had different iterations where they were like, "Oh no, maybe our population is growing too much."

Enos: So they actually had a policy that was called "Later, Longer, Fewer". Later marriage, longer intervals between births, and fewer children. That actually predated the one child policy, and then you have the shift the one child policy. Let me be clear on this, when the one child policy was in place, it wasn't just that Chinese families could only have one child. It was that Chinese families had to actively go and seek permission from the government to even have that one child. If they did not seek permission and somehow got pregnant outside of the government's approval, they were often subject to forced abortions and penalties for having those children.

Doescher: Yeah. So that literally my next question, you went right to it. I want to know how a policy like this works. Let's say a couple, "Oh, we got pregnant with our fourth child." Are they forced to report that? I mean, talk about the enforcement.

Enos: Yeah. So it's societally frowned upon to have more than the allotted children, and that can actually have impacts for Chinese citizens' ability to retain a job that they already have, to gain promotion within their job. Typically, if you have a child that is outside of those mandated quotas, you'll have to pay some sort of fine. Often those fines are actually cost prohibitive. So then families were having to resort to abortions, even though they might prefer to actually have those children. There were exemptions in the early days of the one child policy, depending on whether or not you were a more agriculturally based group. So for example, actually Uighurs were allowed to have more children than your ordinary Han Chinese people were. But in general, still the government is exerting control and saying, "You can only have so many kids when we say you can have them." Whether or not you're actually a good member of society, which is deemed and justified by the Chinese Communist Party.

Doescher: It's amazing to me thinking about, I mean, and we'll talk more about this. But just the term "forced abortion", it is terrifying to me and that has been baked into the fabric of that society over there as a real possibility.

Enos: Yeah. Actually again, in the early days of the one child policy, the Chinese Communist Party mobilized this entire workforce that was organized around family planning and population control. I think at one point there was over 500,000 individuals who were devoted to this. What it meant, if you're a population control worker, you're going to your friends, your neighbors' homes, and you're like, "Oh, you look like you're pregnant," or, "We heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that you're pregnant." If you didn't get a permission from the government, they're going to come and they're going to harass you, your family members, you at your workplace and tell you, "We need you to come down so that you can have a forced abortion." If you've already exceeded that quota, many women were also subject to forced sterilizations. Or just strongly encouraged to be subject to sterilization in order to continue to hold their jobs. It's just a systematic targeting of the family and a very, very personal family decision.

Doescher: Yeah. It's funny. In 1991, my family adopted Julie from Korea, and yeah, and greatest thing that ever happened to our family. No doubt. We were told that she was, I believe the third daughter in the family. They said, the adoption agency said that girls are often put up for adoption in Korea. So I was wondering if there's a same kind of culture in China, because we read about how women are often or girls, little baby girls are the ones that are often aborted more than men have been, over history. Is that the same in China?

Enos: Yeah. There's definitely a preference for sons. Some of this came out of practical needs, when a society was more agricultural it was just better to have boys to be working on the farm. Also if you can only have one child, your name and your legacy continues with the boy child. So you do see this really disproportionate gender imbalance inside of China. In some provinces and especially in the early days of the one child policy, there were disproportionate numbers of 126 boys for every 100 girls in certain provinces. So this is a huge offset. The norm is, I think 104 boys for every 100 girls, if you look around the globe, but it has been skewed enormously. Many of those demographic trends were already solidified by the one child policy. So even attempts to leadership to the two child policy and the three-child policy, really can't change the fact that there are Chinese men who are actively looking for wives and can't find them.

Doescher: I saw articles popping up. It's been over the last three years, "Chinese men seeking romantic relationship with an AI robot."

Enos: Oh my gosh.

Doescher: That's a woman, and they bring it back to the fact that there is a disproportionate amount of men versus women in China because of this policy. It's crazy.

Enos: Yeah. Yeah. Some people have even speculated that it's created or at least contributed to a human trafficking problem from the surrounding region. So we know that a lot of North Korean women, for example, when they try to find freedom beyond North Korea, they have to pass through China. Something like 70% of North Korean women that defect end up trafficked or married forcibly to some Chinese men who's been looking for essentially a mail-order bride. It's not just North Korea. There are a lot of Southeast Asian women who are also brought in and then sold into marriage, often at extremely young ages. So it has created other societal challenges that I think the Chinese Communist Party could never have predicted.

Doescher: In your recent piece in Forbes, you said quote, "As the Chinese government faces the consequences of its previously stringent policies, perhaps the most important takeaway for the CCP is that even if government can control family size, it might not be wise to do so. The unintended demographic consequences are severe, the restrictions on human rights and freedom even worse." I think that that is extremely important.

Enos: Yeah. I mean, we saw the reason why you've seen the CCP walking back the one child policy shifting in 2016 to the two child policy, and now shifting here in 2021 to a three-child policy is because they see the demographic impacts of those manipulations in their market. So what's happened essentially is you've had this demographic inversion where there is a much larger group of an elderly population, and very few people who can actually take care of them in old age. So it's heartbreaking. From that standpoint, there are people in society who may not be getting the care that they need and deserve. But beyond that, it's having economic impacts because the size of their working age population is shrinking rapidly.

Enos: Different studies have predicted different things. There is a really helpful Credit Suisse report that said that they believe that China is going to see a decrease in the size of its workforce every single year in the 2020s. We're at the very beginning of the 2020s. So what will it look like in 2030?

Doescher: Right.

Enos: So it has beyond the social impacts, beyond the human rights, the heart level impacts that we all feel at a really deep level. It has actual economic impacts too.

Doescher: Usually the Chinese Communist Party, or from within I bet is never wrong. I bet they're always right. We never make a mistake because we are the Chinese Communist Party and we were perfect.

Enos: Yeah.

Doescher: Probably they don't say that, but it seems like this right here is that admission of, oops, we messed up big time. I wonder if the citizens can see that within within China.

Enos: Yeah. I don't know whether they can, and the sad part about all of this is that many Chinese people now don't even want to have more kids. Because they feel, one, they can't afford to have more kids, but two, if the norm was always that they would only have one and maybe two, why suddenly the change to three. If as you said, the CCP said that it was better to have only one or two. Why shift to having three? I think there are people certainly who are very excited that they can have more children. But I think that the vast majority don't necessarily feel that. So what change will happen? Will this actually lead to helping the Chinese economy or changing demographics?

Doescher: Yeah.

Enos: Maybe not.

Doescher: So what does the US do about this?

Enos: So unfortunately the Biden administration this year re-upped funding for UNFPA, which is the UN Population Fund. There have been allegations, significant allegations over the last several years that when the US has contributed to UNFPA funds, those funds have been used actually to go towards that, like 500,000 person, cadre of family planning that is taking place in China. So that means that your taxpayer dollars, my taxpayer dollars are potentially going towards funding forced abortions and forced sterilizations in China. I don't think, we should not be doing that. We should not be continuing to fund those things. Typically, Republican presidents will revoke funding to UNFPA exactly for these reasons.

Doescher: Right.

Enos: Because protecting and preserving the lives of people all across the globe should be a priority. Actually in fact, it's an obligation of good governments to protect those fundamental freedoms. But unfortunately right now that's not what's happening. So I think there's a real need to push for revoking that funding once again, because we should not be funding those types of efforts.

Doescher: Olivia, it is always so good to have you in, even though it's a heavy topic. But through you, through you, the light is shining, and thank you so much again for being here.

Enos: Oh thanks so much for having me on, Tim.

Doescher: That's it for this week's episode of Heritage Explains. Thank you so much for listening. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for liking us. Thanks for leaving us a comment. Thanks for sending us an email at Let me take a big breath. Next week, Michelle's up. We'll see you then.

Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Popp.

Show Notes:

Olivia's recent piece in Forbes: Why a Three-Child Policy Doesn’t Actually Help the Chinese People

Heritage Foundation's effort to counter China