The Reform of the One-Child Policy Will Help Reduce Corruption in China

Imagine being pregnant with a second child in a country with a one-child-per-family limit. The penalties for violating the policy are severe-forced abortions, sterilizations, and crippling fines. This was, of course, the grim reality for many Chinese citizens before October 30, 2015. That day, China’s Central Communist Party issued a short announcement that all Chinese couples will be allowed to have two children, ending 35 years of the notorious one- child policy.

The official reason for ending this policy lies in its troubling effects on China’s demographics: After decades of successfully curbing population growth, the one-child policy has caused China to become a country with a rapidly aging population (that is enjoying more longevity) and a corresponding shrinking young work force, which together put enormous pressure on the country’s labor industry and public service resources. Commentators have overlooked the fact that the new two-child policy may also have important implications for President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption crackdown (covered from different perspectives here, here, and here ). The one-child policy (perhaps inadvertently) fostered at least two forms of corruption, and the end of that policy will therefore make a non-negligible contribution to reducing corruption in China.

Both forms of corruption associated with the one-child policy derived mainly from the “social support fee,” which was officially defined in 2002 as “a fee paid by citizens giving birth extra-legally, in order to compensate for the government’s public goods spending , adjust the consumption of natural resources, and protect the environment. “(The fee actually had been in force since the 1980s, but was renamed several times.) After various provincial and local government tax reforms, the social support fee became one of the only sources of revenue over which local governments had complete control, which gave rise to two significant forms of corruption:

For these reasons, the elimination of the one-child policy eliminates a potent source of corruption. While families would still need to pay a social support fee for a third child, relatively few Chinese families today want more than two children, meaning that as a practical matter, this particular source of revenue-and corruption-has dried up now that the one -child policy is no more.

Of course, this naturally invites the question of how local governments will make up the expected revenue shortfall, now that they will no longer be collecting significant social support fees, as well as the related question of how the government officials who previously misappropriated received significant illicit income – from embezzled social support fees or bribes paid to avoid these fees – will deal with the elimination of this income stream. It is possible that corruption will simply reappear in another form, or that the government will promulgate tax reforms to give local governments more control over other sources of revenue. This is all just speculation. However, one thing is certain: the changes in China’s reproduction policies will have significant, and largely overlooked, consequences for the country’s ongoing fight against corruption, particularly at the provincial level.

4 thoughts on “The Reform of the One-Child Policy Will Help Reduce Corruption in China

  1. Thanks for a great post! It is interesting to see how seemingly social reforms could be having an impact in Xi’s anticorruption campaign. Reading the post, I wondered if there were other ways in which children are/have been used for corrupt purposes by local government officials in China.

    As you suggest in your final paragraph, it is likely that there will be an effort to replace social support fees as a means of filling local budget gaps. Is it possible that families with two children instead of one will be susceptible to additional fees just for the fact that they have two children, even if that is now legally permissible? If so, do you expect that many families will have two children now that it is allowed, even if there is a cost (in addition to the expected increased cost of caring for a second child) associated with having a second child?

    At the end of the day, the key question for China might be whether future efforts to extract fees from households with two children might overcome the desired demographic effects of ending the one-child policy.

  2. I agree with Nathan that spotting the corruption implications of these sorts of social reforms is always interesting. For me, that raises questions about framing, ones that admittedly might not apply here (if you’re right, it seems likely the Chinese government may have considered the effect you outlined, but I suppose that’s uncertain). If a government envisions that a particular change will have two types of positive effects–one of them being reducing corruption–when should a government use messaging related to reducing corruption and when should it focus on different reasons? And within the corruption framing, when is it best to focus on the economic (or social/political) benefits of corruption, and when (if ever) is it best to mount a morality-focused campaign?

    As I said, this is somewhat far afield from your original post–which is interesting enough in and of itself. In this case, framing the changes as reducing corruption not only wouldn’t reflect the government’s likely real incentive, but also wouldn’t serve the government’s likely media purposes as well as the actual talking points/framing it used. Still, I wonder if there might be some cases where it might behoove a government making corruption-related reforms to see if there’s an alternate framework (less focused on corruption) that would be more persuasive to the public.

  3. Insightful connection, Cindy! Nathan and Katie’s comments raise additional interesting points. Building off of what Katie said, there might be a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation here. You’ve made a persuasive argument that changing the one-child policy will reduce opportunities for corruption. It is likely also true, as others have suggested, that President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign weakened local officials’ attachment to the unpopular policy in the first place – in other words, the policy became less valuable as the central government expanded its audit power (e.g. http://globalriskinsights.com/2015/11/one-child-policy-latest-victim-of-chinas-anti-corruption-drive/). If both of these theories are correct, we may not see a balloon effect in bribe-taking (whereby putting pressure one one area simply shifts the problem to another). However, I, like Nathan, wonder if the fees will somehow reappear in licit form.

  4. Cindy, this is a really interesting post and I had not realized that the social support fees were such a source of corruption. I think there is a second large source of corruption that the one-child policy has been fostering: second children born whose parents did not pay the social support fee are undocumented within their own country and have to pay bribes to be enrolled in school, get a residency permit and for any other normal service they would need to interact with government officials.

    The move to a two child policy will substantially reduce the incidence of undocumented Chinese being born and so will reduce the problem down the road, but it will not by itself solve the problem for currently existing extra children (and, at this point when the policy has been in place for decades, extra adults). I wonder if the government will take steps to provide ‘amnesty’ for previously born second and third children, especially if they are interested in reducing incentives for corruption.

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