Last week, the Chinese government revealed officials have killed 336 million babies through abortions since 1971, when the government first started encouraging population control. The government adopted the one-child policy in 1979.
The number of aborted babies amounts to one-forth of the country’s population—equivalent to the entire population of the United States in 2012.
But even as they announced their missing generations as an accomplishment, officials revealed plans to restructure China's family planning agency, a sign the policy could be changing.
Each year, more than 13 million babies are aborted in China—1,500 an hour. And in the past four decades, Chinese doctors have performed 196 million sterilizations and inserted 403 million intrauterine devices, according to official data.
The policy has not only cost hundreds of millions of lives, but also changed the demographic make up of the population of 1.3 billion. A preference for boys has led to gender imbalance, with 34 million more men than women in China. The dearth of women has led to an increase in sex trafficking, child brides, and prostitution.
At the same time, the country’s labor pool shrank by 3.45 million in 2012, the first decline in 50 years. China faces an increasingly aging population, with the ratio of working-age taxpayers to the elderly expected to decline from 5 to 1 now to 2 to 1 by 2030, according to The Economist. In some large cities like Shanghai, the fertility rate is as low as 0.7, among the lowest in the world.
While some exceptions to the policy exist—couples in some rural areas are allowed more than one child, couples who lose a child can have a second one, and couples who are both only children can have two children—the Family Planning Commission strictly enforces the policy, often with brutality.
If families do not have the money to pay the fine for having a second child, which is equivalent to several years’ pay, Family Planning officials raid homes in the middle of the night and force mothers to have abortions.
But during last week’s National People’s Congress, the Chinese government said it would merge the family planning ministry with the health ministry to form a Health and Family Planning Commission. While officials said the merge did not mean an end to the one-child policy, other observers believe this may be the beginning of the end for the law.
Wang Feng, a population expert and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, told the Wall Street Journal that officials are denying the change as a “measure to save face and a recognition that they can’t announce all the change in one day.”
“The National Population and Family Planning Commission was created for a single mandate of controlling population growth and now they no longer have that, those powers have been dissolved,” Wang said.
With high profile cases of forced abortion circling in Chinese social media and top Chinese scholars deriding the one-child policy, the pressure has been building to transition to a more flexible system, such as a two-child policy.
Political leaders fear that reform would lead to exponential population growth, but demographers don’t agree. “It’s not necessary,” Zuo Xuejin, of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told The Economist. “We don’t need the policy any more.”