Big Chinese metropolises like Guangzhou, Shanghai and most recently Beijing are now allowing "double single" couples — or parents who are both singletons and products themselves of the one-child policy, to have two children.
This change has happened gradually and almost out of the public eye, spurred by alarmist projections of future negative population growth in wealthy hubs like Shanghai, where the fertility rate currently is 0.8 or far below the national average of 1.8.
Last year, China's wealthiest province Guangdong quietly dropped the requirement that those "eligible-to-have-two-children couples" should wait for four years before having the second one. Beijing is set to follow suit this year.
China's one-child policy little enforced (Now) -- and set to end
More than three decades after China formalized its one-child policy, the population-control program no longer applies to most Chinese and looks set to be abolished.
While government statistics aren't publicly available, a widely cited figure from state-media reports shows less than 36% of the country's population was subject to the policy, as of 2007.
But even this low number may overstate compliance with the once-strict rule that bars Chinese couples from having more than one child. Current exceptions abound -- including allowing a second child for many rural families, almost all ethnic minorities, families where both parents are themselves only children, and many other cases.
And for those targeted under the policy -- such as residents of Beijing, where the one-child rule is said to be more strictly enforced than in many other parts of the country -- financial penalties, either in the form of fines or exclusions from benefits, are the main deterrent.
There is no punishment [for having a second child], just the need to spend money to obtain the hukou [registration papers]," said a Beijing mother of a second child, who asked not to be identified.
"If you don't want a Beijing hukou, that's no problem. You can send the [second or third child] to a private school, send them to an overseas university, or else go to Hong Kong and give birth there," she said.
Hukou documents are crucial to allow citizens access to public services, including schooling, medical facilities and jobs. Couples having more than one child in contravention to the policy must pay a fine to register their additional children.
Fines assessed for having additional children are calculated as a multiple of the per-capita gross domestic product in the parents' domicile. For example, residents of Guangdong province in southern China -- one of the nation's most populous -- found in violation of the policy may be required to pay a fine that could be up to six times the family's income in the previous year.
"I believe the policy is slowly being relaxed and will eventually be removed. But there is a bureaucratic machinery that now protects the existing system, so I think this will take time," said John Bacon-Shone, associate dean for research at the faculty of social sciences at The University of Hong Kong.
In fact, intense speculation that China may allow couples to have two children recently forced officials to formally refute them.
Zhao Baige, deputy director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China, said last month that China's family-planning policy will remain unaltered during the 12th five-year plan, which is slated to run from 2011 to 2015.
Siu, an expert on Chinese demographics and family-planning studies, said the administration is pursuing a "zero-growth [population] policy," and one reason policy makers haven't ended the one-child policy as yet, is that they fear a return to unbridled population growth.
Even when China does officially lift the one-child rule, the country may continue to have family-planning policies in place to prevent a return to the explosive growth in its population, said Siu.
China is currently at 50% urbanization andincreasing at about 2% per year. In no country have cities been generating population. They've been consumers of population. It's the rural regions which generate population," said DeGolyer
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