China’s three-child policy signals more state control, not less

The recently unveiled 14th five-year plan (2021–2025), the next iteration of China’s population policy,   will be a critical phase in the country’s demographic evolution, and therefore a telling sign of its political and economic trajectory. The most significant aspect of the CCP’s next chapter is the announcement of a three-child policy.

The news comes following Beijing’s reversal of its decades-long one-child policy in 2015, and the abolishment of the CCP’s long-feared Family Planning Commission three years later, which enforced the laws through heavy fines or forced abortions. Once lauded for having curtailed the growth of the world’s most populated country, it is now seen as partly responsible for a looming demographic crisis.

Today, getting young people to have children is central to Beijing’s efforts to avert an aging workforce and a dangerously low parity fertility rate that could severely destabilise its economic and social progress – and potentially pose a risk to CCP rule.

The gendered consequences of the three-child policy are complex and far-reaching. It has been reported that the policy’s implications for gender equality in the workplace are pressuring women to report intimate details of their love and sex lives to employers. The trend has been clearly visible. In recent years government propaganda for population policies have increasingly promoted more traditional gender roles in to combat the steep dive of marriage rates over the last few decades.

Men are not exempt from social engineering by the CCP either. For two decades now, potential sperm donors at one of Beijing’s top hospitals find themselves facing arguably the toughest set of standards worldwide. Listed as the first criteria, before any mention of infectious or hereditary diseases, is the requirement that potential donors have “a love for socialism and the motherland” and be “supportive of the leadership of the party.”

Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, suggests the new policy will offer people “more choice than ever before to decide how many children they have.” However, China’s low birth-rate is not just the result of policy adherence but the reflection of a population demoralised at the hands of an overbearing state.

Social engineering in China has its roots in Deng Xiaoping’s 1986 grand strategy to bring science in the struggling socialist state up to speed with that of developed countries. What has emerged in the three decades since is a comprehensive set of practices that is good for the party, rather than the individual.

These ethics are reflected in a 1993 survey of 255 Chinese geneticists: an overwhelming majority of which said that public health and the “quality” of the population should be improved through social engineering. Most of the scientists surveyed strongly supported government-mandated genetic screening before marriage, and more than 90 percent favoured forbidding couples with inheritable diseases from having children.

Under the guise of family planning programs, the Chinese state has promulgated birth control as a means of pursuing its own political ends. Women are no longer allowed personal autonomy—the female body becomes the body of the state, and the womb, the careful gestation of the next generation of citizens under the CCP. These are not the actions of a state confident in its own longevity.

The CCP has used hard control to constrain the bodies of its citizens. At best, the CCP has been accused of treating women as commodities, or “a water tap, one that they can turn off and on as they wish,” as Xiao Meili, a feminist activist said. At worst, this hyper-fixation on social engineering a population can lead to human rights violations.

Today, troubling news coming from Xinjiang suggest that these violations are well underway within its borders. A recent report has found evidence that the CCP is forcing ethnic minorities to be sterilised or fitted with contraceptive devices in Xinjiang to inhibit population growth within the Muslim Uighurs community in China’s northwesternmost region.

The CCP’s sanctioning of forced sterilization is the clearest evidence of how far the state will go to promote its survival. Even the bodies of Han Chinese are under constant surveillance: state media has lectured couples that the birth of a child is “not only a family matter, but also a state affair.”

Xi Jinping’s regime cannot allow the very notion of population control to be called into question — no more than it can tolerate any mention of Tiananmen Square or the atrocities committed during the Cultural Revolution. These are the reasons for which prominent dissidents like Miles Kwok have long argued that the regime based on popular fear rather than popular approval is unsustainable. As the demands of the people grow, the ability of the party to retain control and obedience will begin to experience diminishing returns.

Increasingly, the social system engineered by Beijing looks like an untenable bid to secure future state control. Fewer young people are getting married. Fewer people can afford to buy a house, or raise a family. Mass anxiety can be witnessed in reproduction clinic waiting rooms all over the country, with people now starting to realise the consequences of the harm posed to their bodies caused by state-sanctioned environmental degradation in the form of unchecked air pollution.

China is not unlike most other developed nations experiencing an aging population. But all countries should recognise the three-child policy for what it is: the continuation of sustained control on both female and men’s bodies to mould them into the ideal CCP citizen, at the cost of all else.