China’s 18th National Congress kicked off Nov. 8 in Beijing with President Hu Jintao speaking out on corruption: It “could prove fatal to the party.” But he revealed little else about what to expect from the next generation of leaders.
The weeklong congress, attended by more than 2,200 delegates, is largely ceremonial, as top officials behind closed doors choose China’s next leaders. Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang are widely expected to be named party leader and premier respectively, but the actual leadership won’t be formally announced until after the congress.
Despite the uncertainty of what the next decade under Xi may look like, one thing is sure: Chinese are ready for change, including changes to the country’s one-child policy. In the past year, high-profile cases of forced abortions and forced sterilizations have sparked firestorms among Chinese on social media. Chinese scholars have openly criticized the policy. Just days before the leadership change, an online poll on Sina Weibo, China’s microblogging platform, found that 71.7 percent of the 30,000 people who answered supported a two-child policy.
Policymakers have also had a change of heart. A week before the congress met, a report from a top government think tank leaked to Chinese media called for a switch to a two-child policy by 2015 and all birth limits dropped by 2020. China Development Research Foundation, a group with close ties to the highest levels of the Communist Party, is expected to release the complete report after the leadership transition.
The report cites fears of the policy’s long-term effect on demographics. If the policy continues, elderly people will make up a third of the population by 2050.
Co-author of the report Cui Fang, an economist who heads the Population and Development department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said: “In the past, family planning was important for our national development, but now the country has changed and the decision about how many children to have should be given back to families.”
Social media, specifically Weibo, is helping to change minds about the one-child policy, with photos, links, and posts often spreading faster than internet censors can track. Last June a graphic photo of Feng Jianmei next to her baby, forcibly aborted at 7 months gestation, went viral, angering citizens and leading to Chinese officials banning late-term abortions.
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman said: “More and more, the Chinese people, from microbloggers to peasants to students, are demanding that their voices be heard—and officials clearly feel the need to respond. China is now a strange hybrid—an autocracy with 400 million bloggers, who are censored, feared and listened to all at the same time.”
Those demanding that their voices be heard will be watching to see if China’s new leadership is listening.