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Report - June 1998

Encourages Voluntary Limits

A June 1998 report from U.S. Embassy Beijing

Summary: Several Chinese demographers at the recent Beijing International Demography Conference said that that PRC family planning experience over the last two decades has shown that strong pressures on rural people to limit family size have had only limited success. Zeng Yi of Beijing University, told the conference that overly strict rules are counterproductive -- rules must seem reasonable if people are to cooperate. In a January 1998 scholarly article, Zeng Yi elaborated his view that the growth of market economy has both reduced the effectiveness of State interventions to limit population growth and increased the incentives for individuals to voluntarily limit their fertility. Zeng noted that relaxed family planning target experiments in several counties conducted over the past few years by family planning officials have been successful. A growing awareness among officials that trying to limit fertility by government fiat has not been effective in the countryside appears be changing family planning in the PRC. Integration of family planning with poverty alleviation and education in recent years is one sign of this trend. The lessons Chinese demographers are now drawing and conveying to policymakers from two decades of family planning are the best guide to the future of family planning in China.

Beijing University Demography Institute Professor Zeng Yi, a top advisor to former State Family Planning Commission Chairwoman Peng Peiyun and now to her successor Zhang Weiqing, found that the strength of local traditions, economic development, and the influence of overseas Chinese to be among the reasons why family planning fell further short of goals in Fujian Province and Guangzhou than in Sichuan and several other provinces. Zeng told ESTOFF that prosperity achieved through economic reform and improved education will result in much greater voluntary acceptance of family planning goals. Interestingly, Zeng's presentation is in line with more recent interpretations of President Jiang Zemin's 1995 guideline that "family planning should not be based on the market alone". This guideline is interpreted in the October 1, 1996 book "Speaking Heart-to-Heart with General Secretary" published by scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to mean that financial incentives and other strategies should be deployed in such a way that market mechanisms become more effective in family planning. "Speaking Heart-to-Heart" published on the PRC National Day with a picture of President Jiang Zemin drew much attention as a provocative interpretation of President Jiang's thinking and policy ideas by a group of younger Chinese scholars at the Academy of Social Sciences. End summary.

Zeng Yi on Gap Between Population Goals and Reality -- Why Greater in Guangzhou and Fujian Provinces?
At the October 1997 Beijing conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, Beijing University Demography Institute Director Zeng Yi presented the results of analysis of population growth in several groups of Chinese provinces and regions based largely on the 1990 census but also using demographic data from 1987 and 1988 as well. Zeng asked why the real Total Fertility Rate (the number of children each woman has on average over a lifetime) for China during the early 1990s at 2.31 was 42 percent higher than the policy goal of 1.62.
Zeng adjusted the population target figures for factors such as the proportion of minority population (minorities of under 10 million come under less strict rules than does the majority ethnic Han population) in the population of each province. Zeng grouped provinces in which the actual TFR came closer to target (average excess fertility of 26 percent) and the provinces in which the target was far exceeded (average excess fertility of 60 percent).
  Province Adjusted 
Total Fertility 

Total Fertility

TFR Target

is Exceeded
Inner Mongolia 1.8 2.3 18.3
Yunnan  2.1 2.7 25.4
Ningxia 2.1 2.6 26.2
Hebei 1.6 2.6 59.6
Hubei 1.6 2.5 58.7
Fujian 1.6 2.6 59.6
Guangdong 1.8 2.5 34.0

Cultural Background, Target Reasonableness the Key: Relaxed Family Planning Target Experiments Successful
Zeng Yi told a conference session that his study revealed that differences in cultural background, GDP, and the reasonableness of the policy adopted by the local family planning authorities accounted for most of the differences. Areas with a more reasonable fertility goals were much more successful in winning cooperation from the people. Experimental relaxed target experiments in Yi Chun County in Shanxi Province, Chude in Hebei Province, and Longshen in Guangxi have been very successful, achieving or sometimes exceeding the official target and also showing a more normal sex ratio at birth than in other areas. The rural two child policy failed however in Guangdong. Zeng, an advisor to State Councilor Peng Peiyun, told his audience how he had answered Councilor Peng's question about Guangdong. Zeng said that the early progress of economic reform in Guangdong Province weakened political control. Moreover, overseas Chinese investors in Guangdong Province often told local officials that "if family planning is too strict, I will invest in another area", thereby discouraging family planning enforcement.
Zeng also noted that Guangdong Province has a very traditional family structure -- the proportion of three generation families living together in Guangdong Province is the highest in China. The ability of government officials and the way family planning efforts are led is important. Setting fertility goals which are unrealistically low a policy is counterproductive, concluded Zeng.

Interlude: Relaxed Policy Succeeds in Shanxi Province
Yang Suiquan [STC: 2799 6659 0356], in his 1995 book "Studies on the Population Legal System of China' [Zhongguo Renkou Falu Zhidu Yanjiu] (p. 132 - 133) points to a decade of successful experiments with relaxed population goals in Yicheng [STC: 5065 1004] County, Shanxi Province [35.44 N, 111.42 E]. In Yicheng County couples which have observed the rule of not marrying early and waiting three years to have their first child are permitted to have a second child after age 30 if they wish. The result has been a total fertility rate (2.35) and a population growth rate considerably less than in neighboring counties and a more normal sex ratio among the children. Yang points out that some Chinese scholars point out important advantages to this policy experiment now over ten years old compared with current policy:
1) Reduces aging of the population and produces more normal sex ratios
2) Avoids emotional conflicts with local officials by allowing couples to fulfill their desire to have a second child if they wish and so produces more cooperation and support of family planning
3) Frees local officials from difficult, time-absorbing family planning work to concentrate more on problems of economic development.
Interlude: The Difficulty of Population Control in Qingxin County, Guangdong Province
Zhang Feng, vice president of the Population Association of Guangdong Province, presented at another session his research into the influence of local tradition on population control in the village of Gaotian in Qingxin County (23.44 N, 113.01 E), Guangdong Province. This is an especially poor area of Guangdong with a per capita annual income in 1996 of 1548 RMB (USD 186). Zhang found that close clan ties, isolation of villages (most people find a spouse within 1.8 kilometers of home), and high social pressure to have boys, all make family planning especially difficult there. Zhang found that even at the income point (an average per capita income of 1500 RMB per year) at which farmers in other parts of China began to voluntarily restrict fertility, social factors such as the poor education of women, poor quality of life, and women's low social status seem to prevent these changes from occurring in Gaotian.
Zeng: Education and Poverty Alleviation Are Key
Zeng said that the problem of excessively high fertility rates cannot be solved by compulsion but by socioeconomic policies and actions to persuade people to change their idea of how many children they want to have. Zeng said that these policies include universal compulsory education even for remote farmers, empowerment of women to raise their status in society, and integrating family planning work with poverty alleviation and economic development work. Some other demographers at the Population Conference said that the future of population control in China depends increasingly on economic and social factors and that the importance of the State Family Planning Commission in restraining China's population growth is steadily diminishing.
Rural Population Growth and Economic Reform: Zeng's January 1998 Article
Zeng Yi expounds upon the effect of the transformation to the market on Chinese fertility in an article he co-authored with Yale Professor T. Paul Schultz in the January 1988 article in the PRC journal "Social Sciences in China" [Zhongguo Shehui Kexue]. The introduction of the contract responsibility system in agriculture during the early 1980s weakened family planning controls during that period. However, by the late 1980s, economic costs and incentives created by the contract system was already reducing the number of children farmers wanted. Zeng points out that the "big cooking pot" system of the Peoples' Communes insulated people from the costs of having many children.
Having become economically more independent under the contract responsibility system, many farmers, after comparing the costs of children with the benefits of their labor, decided to have fewer children. The analysis is complicated by the fact that China's family planning policy was strictest during 1982 - 1984 when a one-child policy was implemented for ethnic Han people in rural as well as urban China. During 1985 - 1987, family planning policy relaxed considerably: Guangdong, Hainan, Ningxia, Yunnan and Xinjiang rural ethnic Han people were then allowed two children while rural people in other parts of China were allowed a second child with a three-year spacing. Nonetheless, by comparing areas where the responsibility system was instituted earlier with areas where it started later, the strong effect of rural economic reform on fertility becomes apparent.

A Demographer: Zeng's Views Are Controversial -- Rural Inflow Will Solve The Age Structure Problem
Another prominent PRC demographer told ESTOFF that many other demographers and officials disagree with Zeng's analysis. They fear a big upward swing in fertility if urban one-child family planning restrictions are relaxed. This demographer said that Zeng's concerns about an unsustainably high ratio of elderly people to young people as a result of the urban one-child policy in big cities like Shanghai would only be true if the city were isolated from the countryside in China. But that is not true. A floating population of 120 million circulates between the cities and the countryside. The real age structure problem might actually occur in the countryside. As more and more working age people leave the old and the young along with some mothers with small children rural China will suffer from an increasingly serious age structure problem, predicted the demographer.
Family Planning and the Market: Policy Perspectives From 1996 Book "Heart to Heart With the Gen'l Secretary"
The Fall 1996 best-selling explication of President Jiang Zemin's policy, written by a group of scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, "Speaking Heart-to-Heart with the General Secretary" (published on the PRC national day (October 1) and with a picture of President Jiang on the cover) is consonant with Zeng Yi's research and gives an insight into the advice scholars are giving Chinese policymakers. Here is an overview on the evolution of family planning in China since the breakdown of the People's Commune system in the 1970s from that book (p. 62)
"...The market reforms begun during the late 1970s brought a new challenge to China's family planning methods. Originally, [the state] had relatively strong power to control fertility based on a complete and well-organized family system at the grassroots level. However, as the household responsibility system was implemented and the people's communes were dissolved, the economic functions of village-level organizations grew weaker. As the organization became looser so too did its ability to control fertility at the village grassroots level. The increase in the population to a large extent could not be completely controlled by the family planning system.....

"This should not be surprising. The family is, after all, an economic unit, and in addition to its function of optimizing the production process, the allocation of labor, and the arrangement of consumption deciding upon the number of family members is also an important matter than falls within its purview. Under the people's commune system, the decision-making powers of the family were weakened. Decisions about the number of children to have along with economic decisions were left to the state plan and collective decision-making. That is only natural under that kind of system. But once the family system was re-established, the family must inevitably become once again involved in the decision of how many children to have. Moreover, the array of costs and benefits the family confronts in making this decision are not always in line with those that the state faces.. "

"If the capital cost of children is high, then families will decide to have fewer children and invest more in that child. This is what has happened in many of China's big cities. But the situation is different in the countryside....." remarked the Chinese Academy of Sciences authors of "Heart to Heart With the General Secretary".

Drawing Lessons From What Works: Two Decades of Family Planning Experience
Over the past several years Chinese demographers, many of them trained with the help of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), have been analyzing population data and conducting field studies to find out just what works. Chinese demographers, like China's leaders, worry about a mid Century population of 1.6 billion that is just barely within the 1.8 billion that Chinese experts reckon China could ultimately support. Although Chinese experts and officials disagree with Lester Brown's analyses, his warnings of food production shortfalls resonate strongly in China. Many older people still recall the 1959-61 famine that killed 30 million people.
Beyond Good and Evil: Choice Works Better
Some Chinese demographers argue that family planning policy is not morally good or bad but merely a product of the specific circumstances of a given country. What seems to emerge from many volumes of scholarship published by Chinese scholars and their presentations at the October 1997 Beijing conference of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population is not that market-based incentives or increasing voluntariness is morally better but that it is in the end more effective. Most of these scholars do not favor the abolition of family planning rules and fines. They do see, however, that the role of government orders and fines in limiting China's population growth is becoming less important. Voluntary reductions in births based on private economic considerations has already become in many areas the only practical way to limit population growth. As is other area, the central government's capacity to enforce its policies on local officials and information on local family planning practice is weak. Chinese demographers have mentioned to ESTOFF that local officials have been punished for violations of the policy of the national government against using physical force to compel abortions. Although provincial regulations and practices vary widely, central directives are sometimes ignored, and the definition of "voluntary" surely still differs in China and the United States, there is a growing recognition among demographers that high pressure tactics are not only not effective but actually counter-productive meshes. This recognition among demographers has caught on among central government family planning policymakers and gradually to their local government counterparts can be seen in the move towards growing reliance on market incentives (for example by combining family planning with poverty alleviation) and indeed the successful experiments with very relaxed quota family plannning as discussed above over the past several years.
China Population Series
The story of population and family planning in China have many threads. One of these is the growing number of DINKS [double income, no kids] who like their counterparts in Western countries, are choosing to have no children. Reasons for voluntarily having one or no children include cramped housing (urban housing has been built with the one child family in mind for already two decades) and the difficulty Chinese parents face in paying the many miscellaneous fees arbitrarily imposed by school and other authorities. These fees often amount to several months income each year. More threads in the China population story will be picked up in future reports in this series.


Among the most interesting presentations and analyses of Chinese demographic trends and experience with family planning over the past two decades are to be found in a series of eleven volumes in the "China's Population and Development in Transition" [Zhuanbian Zhong de Zhongguo Renkou Yu Fazhan] series published by the Higher Education Publishing House [Gaodeng Jiaoyu Chubanshe] in 1996 with the support of a UNFPA grant. Many Chinese demographers contributed to these volumes. The titles in this series are very helpful in understanding the intertwining of economic, cultural, social and sustainable development issues. Especially useful in understanding the thinking of Chinese demographers have been volumes (all in Chinese) such as "New Demographic Problems that Have Appeared with Opening and Reform", "Poverty Alleviation and Population Policy", and "Demographic Studies of China's Minorities" (the chapters of this last volume on the demography of the Mongols, Tibetans, and Uighurs are summarized on the U.S. Embassy Beijing ES&T section web page at ).
The Population of China Towards the Twenty-First Century - Guangdong Province [Ta Shijide Zhongguo Renkou -- Guangdong Sheng juan]. Published October 1994 by the China Statistical Publishing House [Zhongguo Tongji Chubanshe]. 400 pages. This volume analyzes data census data up to the 1990 census. Topics include population distribution, migration, literacy, age and sex structure, occupation and urbanization, marriage and family, fertility and population control, death rate and life expectancy, allocation of labor resources, population and the environment, population and consumption, and the demographics of the special economic zones. The demographic analysis volumes for each Chinese province published by the Statistical Publishing House has published are very helpful in understanding Chinese population issues.

China Family Planning Compendium [Zhongguo Jihua Shengyu Quanshu], Peng Peiyun, chief editor, Beijing, March 1997, China Population Publishing House [Zhongguo Renkou Chubanshe]. 1500 pages. A compendium of policy statements, speeches, survey reports, conference reports and regulations from the founding of the PRC to the present. Although family planning began in the early 1970s very little (15 pages) of this material predates 1980.

China Family Planning Yearbook 1996 [Zhongguo Jihua Shengyu Nianjian 1996], edited by Li Honggui et al., Beijing, December 1996, China Family Planning Yearbook Editorial Committee. 600 pages. Speeches, policy documents, family planning and population work news by province, international cooperation, directory of important people in PRC family planning, family planning statistics, address of institutes of demography throughout China, population and family planning statistics.

Introduction to Chinese Minority Group Family Planning [Zhongguo Shaoshu Minzu Jihua Shengyu Gailun] by Xu Xifa, Urumqi, July 1995, Xinjiang People's Publishing House [Xinjiang Renmin Chubanshe]. 300 pages. Family planning regulations for China's minority groups were not established until the late 1980s. There are no family planning regulations for the smallest of China's minority groups. For some minorities in rural areas such as the Uighurs of Xinjiang, the regulation calls for a limit of three or four children. The 1992 Tibetan Autonomous Region family planning regulations (pp. 174 -180) restrict family size to one child per family of urban ethnic Hans in Tibet; two children per family or urban ethnic Tibetans in central Tibet are encouraged but not required to limit family size to three; and there is no family planning for Tibetans in remote rural areas. The 1992 Xinjiang Autonomous Region (pp. 164 - 173) regulations permit one child per family for urban ethnic Hans and two per family for Uighurs and other minorities.

In the countryside Uighurs and many other minorities are permitted three children [note: and in practice often more since enforcement is very uneven in the countryside. end note.]. The 1990 Inner Mongolia family planning regulations limit ethnic Hans to one child, Mongols to two children.

Speaking Heart-to-Heart with the General Secretary [Yu Zongshuji Tanxin], ed. by Weng Jieming et. al, Beijing, October 1, 1996, China Social Sciences Publishing House [Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe]. 300 pages. Interpretation by fourteen younger scholars of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of President Jiang Zemin's speech of September 28, 1995 on "Correctly Handling Important Relationships in the Construction of Socialist Modernization".

China's Development, Situation and Trends [Zhongguo Fazhan Zhuangkuang yu Chaoshi], ed. by Weng Jieming, et al. Beijing, November 1996, China Social Sciences Publishing House [Zhongguo Shehui Kexue Chubanshe]. 400 pages. The authors of "Speaking Heart to Heart" develop their theses in this companion volume.

Chinese Society in the Twenty-First Century [Ershiyi Shiji de Zhongguo Shehui], edited by Lu Xueyi, Kunming, December 1996, Yunan People's Publishing House [Yunnan Renmin Chubanshe].

Research on the Population Law System of China [Zhongguo Renkou Falu Zhidu Yanjiu], by Yang Suiquan. Beijing, December 1995, Law Publishing House [Falu Chubanshe]. 300 pages. Research supported by a program of the State Education Commission. Professor of Law at Xinan Zhengzhi Daxue. Yang's book contains an account of the development of China population law system since 1971, a frank discussion of the variation in practice of family planning rules from province to province, how family planning rules lead to bad population statistics (pp. 239 - 240) but there are no effective punishment for faking family planning statistics. Yang estimates (p. 137) that in minority and border areas there are at least 20 - 30 million children and over the family planning limit children who were not reported and so are not included in Chinese opulation statistics.

China's Population: A Realistic Examination [Zonglun Zhongguo Renkou Taishi -- yu Shixian de Duihua], by Gu Baochang. Shanghai, October 1996, Shanghai Social Sciences Press. 300 pages. A frank overview of Chinese population trends and family planning policy including sensitive issues such as abortion, sex ratios, sex selective abortion and infanticide. Gu concludes (p. 75) that the missing girls in the Chinese population can be accounted for by some combination of sex selective abortion, underreporting of girls to avoid one-child limits, and female infanticide but the proportion in each category needs further study. Gu concludes that female infanticide plays a relatively small role compared to the other two factors. Gu's chapter on the causes of unbalanced sex ratios in some parts of China (pp. 235 - 252) notes the wide availability of ultrasound machines in county hospitals that could be used for sex-selective abortions despite government prohibitions against their use for this purpose. Gu also notes that sex ratios also decline as children near school age apparently as more girls are finally registered in order to enter school. (p. 75). See the article by Gu Baochang and Krishna Roy "Sex Ratio at Birth in China, with Reference to Other Areas in East Asia: What We Know" orginally published in Asia-Pacific Population Journal, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1995), pp. 17-42 and available on the Worldwide Web at