Cablegate: Chinese More Free to Decide Birth Timing and Spacing But

Published: Tue 29 Sep 2009 11:22 PM
DE RUEHBJ #2795/01 2722322
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1. (SBU) SUMMARY: China has relaxed some family planning controls
and is turning towards more incentive-based mechanisms for the
enforcement of family planning policies and targets. Although a
restrictive policy, especially for urban areas, still exists, the
most significant progress is increasing freedom for couples on when
to have children. While the baseline of China's strict birth
limitation policy remains that married couples may only have one
child, the policy also provides for several categories of
households, regions, and groups (particularly ethnic minorities)
totaling up to 65 percent of couples who are exempted and therefore
eligible to have more children. END SUMMARY.
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2. (SBU) Widespread press speculation of a major shift in China's
family planning policy broke out in July 2009, when domestic and
international media reported that Shanghai was now encouraging
couples to have two children (REF C). Later stories walked back the
claim that Shanghai had changed its policy, clarifying that
encouragement to have a second child was only "for eligible
couples," namely prospective parents who themselves have no
siblings. Local family planning officials acknowledged that the
change of emphasis was in response to the social impact of the
one-child policy, and were quoted as saying, "we advocate eligible
couples having two children because this can help reduce the
proportion of the aging within the population and alleviate a
workforce shortage in the future." An official statement on
Shanghai's Population and Family Planning Commission website
emphasized that this practice was intended only to inform people of
existing exceptions to the one child rule and did not in fact signal
a change to that policy.
3. (SBU) In a July 31 meeting with ESTHOffs, Deputy Director General
RU Xiaomei of the National Population and Family Planning
Commission's (NPFPC) International Cooperation Department dismissed
the significance of the attention on Shanghai and called the
informational flyers delivered to eligible families "routine"(REF
A). Questioned further about the possibility of China addressing
the pressures caused by the aging population or imbalanced sex ratio
at birth through easing its one child policy, Ru elaborated on the
strategic, programmatic, and systemic changes that NPFPC is
currently making, noting that policy changes would be "neither easy
nor fast."
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4. (SBU) The consistent message from China's central leadership in
recent years indicates that the family planning policy is unlikely
to change in the near future. In December of 2006, the Central
Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the State
Council jointly put out a Decision on "Fully Enhancing Population
and Family Planning Programs and Comprehensively Addressing
Population Issues" ("the Decision"). This is only the third formal
policy statement on family planning for the PRC, with the first
issued in 1991 and the second in 2000. A core part of "the
Decision" calls for stabilizing China's low fertility level "with
all efforts" and for China "to never waver over the implementation
of the fundamental national policy of family planning and
stabilization of the existing fertility policy." This decision
currently defines the long term orientation of China's family
planning policies.
5. (SBU) The Central Government has issued repeated affirmations of
"the Decision" at the highest levels. In 2008 and again in 2009,
family planning policy was on the agendas of the National People's
Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative
Conference (CPPCC), during which media and netizens renewed the
debate (carefully moderated and controlled by Party censors) over
China's one-child policy. In his work reports to the NPC in 2008
and 2009, Premier Wen Jiabao emphasized the stability of the
country's family planning policy. On both occasions, Premier Wen
highlighted the continuation of the current policy of family
planning, of which maintaining China's low birthrate remains the key
6. (SBU) While sources outside of the government acknowledge that
China's fundamental family planning policy of birth limitation may
not change in the long term, they noted some positive adjustments
and shifts to parts of that policy and its implementation. Mariam
Khan, Deputy Representative of the United Nations Population Fund
(UNFPA) in China, told ESTHOffs in a July 30 meeting that she has
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observed a growing level of public discourse on family planning
policy. She noted that a key area of UNFPA's reproductive health
and family planning work in China is improving the level of informed
choice for individuals, in both contraception methods and the timing
of births.
7. (SBU) Peking University (PKU) demographers Professor CHEN Gong,
Deputy Director of PKU's Institute of Population Research, and
Professor Mu Guangzong, told ESTHOffs in a July 24 meeting that
researchers and scholars who focus on the social and economic
pressures caused by China's aging population and by China's gender
imbalance tend to advocate adjustment or elimination of China's
birth limitation policies. They acknowledged, however, that there
are varying points of view, including a minority that has advocated
for stricter enforcement of China's birth limitation policies.
During the most recent NPC session in March 2009, a Chinese Academy
of Social Sciences researcher and NPC deputy CHENG Enfu introduced a
proposal for a tightening in family planning rules, arguing that
China's social and economic development successes have stemmed from
its strict implementation of family planning. Despite 'the Decision'
and extremist views like Cheng's, Chen and Mu echoed Khan's
assessment that public discourse on family planning is widening and
that China has been making small adjustments in easing the controls
and enforcement of its family planning policies.
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8. (SBU) While China's birth limitation policies are often seen as
monolithic, in practice, each province and municipality sets its own
regulations for implementation and enforcement of the national
family planning policies, as standardized in the 2002 National
Population and Family Planning Law. Beyond the baseline of couples
being allowed only one child, all localities include several
categories of both urban and rural couples who are eligible to have
a second (and in some cases a third) child, contributing to China's
total fertility rate of around 1.8 since the late 1990s. In
Beijing, for example, there are nine categories of people who may be
eligible to have a second child, plus requests can be made in "other
special circumstances." Shanghai has 12 categories for eligibility
to have a second child. In Fujian, there are six categories of
regular married couples who are eligible to have a second child,
plus two categories for remarried couples.
9. (SBU) Taking these exceptions into account, countrywide, only
about 35 percent of families are legally limited to having only one
child. Over 50 percent of families are eligible to have a second
child because they meet one of a variety of criteria. The most
common criterion is in rural areas where the first child is a girl,
with another major category if both persons in a marriage are only
children themselves. Some other exceptions are if a first child is
disabled or dies, if the father is a disabled veteran, or in cases
of remarriage. Nearly 10 percent of families may have two children
outright, most commonly in ethnic minority provinces of Hainan,
Yunnan, Qinghai, Ningxia, and Xinjiang, but also in other
impoverished or isolated low population areas. Ethnic minority
areas in general have more relaxed policies, allowing a third child
in some cases.
10. (SBU) According to official Chinese publications available
online, ethnic Tibetans and other minorities residing in rural areas
of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) (the majority of the TAR
population) are not subject to limits on the number of children per
family, but are "encouraged" to have no more than three children
( Several other population categories
in the TAR are, on the other hand, subject to restrictions.
Specifically, civil servants of Han ethnicity may only have one
child per married couple, while ethnic Tibetan civil servants and
urban residents are restricted to two children per couple. Official
sources are inconsistent in their statistics regarding the number of
TAR residents who actually fall into one of these three categories,
ranging from 8 to 20 percent. (NOTE: Tibetan populations outside
of the TAR are subject to the rules governing their respective
localities. END NOTE)
11. (SBU) COMMENT: Post's knowledge about how these policies are
actually implemented in the TAR is limited due to restricted access,
and we note that debate continues among scholars as to the existence
and extent of coercive birth control policies in Tibetan areas.
Moreover, population statistics for the TAR--such as the estimates
cited in paragraph 10 regarding the proportion of the TAR population
subject to birth limits--are highly politicized, and the significant
impact of Han migration on the TAR's demographic landscape has been
consistently downplayed in official statistics. END COMMENT.
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12. (SBU) According to PKU Professor Mu, growing awareness of the
economic costs of having larger families, in addition to new
government programs offering incentives for having fewer children,
is increasing the number of both urban and rural families who choose
to have only one child even when they are eligible to have more.
PKU's Chen and Mu stated that the fear of a sudden rebound in
China's population growth if birth limitations are loosened is
unfounded and speculated that an attempt to reverse the extremely
low birth rates in some areas would be difficult. They noted that
estimates of the birth rate even among those families eligible for a
second child range from 1.6 to 1.7.
13. (SBU) A local newspaper in Shandong reported in March 2009 that
250,000 couples in rural areas of Shandong whose first child was a
girl have already voluntarily given up the opportunity to have a
second child. According to statistics from the Information Center
of the Shandong Provincial Population and Family Planning
Commission, in Weihai City alone, 65 percent of couples eligible to
have a second child have chosen not to do so. Similarly, results
reported from a 2006 Beijing City Population Research Institute
survey of three Beijing districts showed that many eligible couples
were not intending to have a second child. The survey sampled 1,315
couples between the ages of 20 and 34 in which both partners were
only children and thus were eligible to have two children. 36
percent of respondents answered that they were considering having
two children while 64 percent answered that they did not think they
would elect to have two children. In the context of discussing the
demand for illegal ultrasound for fetal sex identification, Mu gave
an example of a couple he encountered in rural Yunnan Province
eligible to have up to three children, but who had taken measures to
ensure that their first child was a boy, because they wanted to
avoid the economic burden of having more children.
14. (SBU) PKU's Mu further pointed out a demographic trend that
could eventually spell the end to the one-child policy in practical
fact if not in law. Mu described how men and women who are only
children, born in the 1980s when China first began to enforce its
birth limitation policy and the strict one-child rule in urban
areas, are a rapidly growing proportion of the urban population now
of marriageable and childbearing age. According to Mu, since every
provincial regulation except Henan Province already includes the
eligibility of a married couple comprised of two only children to
have a second child, couples restricted to having only one child may
soon be the exception rather than the rule.
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15. (SBU) According to UNFPA's Khan, the greatest positive change
within China's family planning policies has been the increased
freedom that couples now have to choose the timing and spacing of
births. Provinces have been gradually phasing out the requisite of
obtaining a birth permit for a first child, which had been the
primary mechanism for managing annual birth quotas and required
couples to apply for permission to get pregnant. According to PKU
demographers Chen and Mu, "birth service certificates" have replaced
the "birth permits," a notable distinction being that the timing of
the first child is no longer centrally managed, and a couple can
register for the Birth Service Certificate after pregnancy. Jiangxi
Province was the latest to revise its population and family planning
regulations by abolishing birth permits in April 2009. According to
NPFPC, all provinces have now eliminated the birth approval process
for a first child. Couples are still required to demonstrate
eligibility and apply for permission to have a second or third
16. (SBU) Another liberalization of family planning restrictions,
which experts all highlighted, is the gradual elimination of birth
spacing requirements. In the past, eligible parents were required
to wait either four years or until the mother had reached a minimum
age before having a second child. In 2003, Hainan Province was the
first to eliminate birth spacing requirements. By 2007, Shanghai,
Gansu, Jilin, Hunan, and Zhejiang had followed suit. Guangdong,
Hubei, Shanxi, and Inner Mongolia removed birth spacing from their
local family planning regulations in 2008, and in the first half of
2009, Shaanxi, Hubei, and Jiangxi also did so, bringing the total to
13 provinces. UNFPA's Mariam Khan also noted progress on the
elimination of birth spacing in UNFPA's project counties (NOTE:
UNFPA projects are being conducted in one county in each of China's
30 provinces. END NOTE). Khan reported to ESTHOffs that, as of
July 2009, 20 of 30 UNFPA project counties had removed their birth
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spacing requirements.
17. (SBU) COMMENT: Despite the government's long term commitment to
maintaining its family planning policy and low fertility rate,
China's birth limitation policy is no longer a strict 'one-child
policy.' Currently only 35 percent of families are legally limited
to having only one child, and, at least in some regions, many
couples eligible to have more than one child are choosing not to
have more children. China has also loosened controls over birth
timing and birth spacing, giving couples greater freedom to decide
when they will have children. Although cases of abuse and coercive
enforcement are still often reported at the local level, nationwide
trends seem to indicate that the Central Government, at least on
paper, would like to introduce greater choice and flexibility in
implementation of its family planning policy, while steadfastly
adhering to China's "vision" of "stabilizing China's low fertility
level." END COMMENT.
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