It’s a strange time to be a Chinese family planning officer. When 49-year-old Liu Yafei started out in the 1990s, many in China reviled officials like him. The infamous one-child policy was then still in place to manage the nation’s rapidly rising population, and family planning at the time was largely geared toward punishing couples who had multiple children. Officials imposed so-called social maintenance fees on violators and forced many to undergo abortions and sterilizations.
The one-child policy had certain exceptions: Rural parents who already had a daughter but desired a son, as well as ethnic minorities, could have more than one child. Still, policy adjustments began in 2011 when the government loosened the one-child policy for any couple who themselves had no siblings. Facing an aging crisis, it was turned into a blanket two-child policy in 2016. But with many couples now opting to have a single child due to rising living costs, family planning might have even more changes to come, and having been left out of the first draft of China's civil code, it could even end altogether.
These transitions have put officials like Liu in an awkward position. Are they still relevant when few families cross the line, or when the line might cease to exist? Sixth Tone spoke with Liu about family planning in China, policy changes, and the future of his work in Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: How do you understand ‘family planning’?
Liu Yafei: Personally, I think “family planning” has two layers of meaning. The first is giving birth in line with national laws and regulations. The second is giving birth when it works best for you and for how many children you want to have, while being accountable to yourself and society.
Even with the previous pushes for [female sterilization] or social maintenance fees, administrative actions have kept these two goals in mind to prevent citizens from giving birth irresponsibly. Human rights must be within the law.
A woman holds up her child in front of a billboard about the one-child policy in Xinshao County, Hunan province, Feb. 1, 2005. IC
Sixth Tone: What policy changes have you experienced in your time working?
Liu Yafei: At first, it was extremely chaotic, and we were under intense pressure. There was no national law, so we had to base all family planning work on province-wide regulations. Our only objective was to reduce the rapidly rising population. We had to visit villages to push women to get on birth control and fine those who had unscheduled births. While carrying out these measures, there was inevitably undisciplined and even crude behavior.
In 2001, the nation put forth the Population and Family Planning Law, which brought about better services and more lawful administration. It was a turning point: Not only did it establish better parameters for law enforcement, but also for births and family planning. Afterward, it was rare to find people with five or six children in rural areas.
From then on, family planning focused on higher-quality services and underwent major changes. In 2004, we stopped [induced abortions] for pregnant women beyond their first trimester, and from 2005 on, we stopped them altogether. After 2010, family planning work shifted to include support for particular family cases, reproductive care, and preventing birth defects.
(Sixth Tone: Although several province-wide regulations forbade family planning officials from directly forcing women to undergo abortions in 2005, government policies often leave women with no other options. As recently as 2016, remarried couples were made to choose between losing their jobs or aborting their pregnancies.)
A family-planning poster in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Sept. 24, 2011. IC
Xinhuang County is home to the Dong ethnic minority and was the first place in [China’s central] Hunan province to introduce the Integrity Family Planning policy in 2014. Before then, anyone who wanted to have more children could just do it and get away with not paying the fine. We didn’t have any practical measures to keep the situation under control and were trying to figure out how to fix that blind spot. The policy offered us a solution: We could make considerations about social welfare and related services based on each family unit.
In the wake of other policies that reduced agricultural taxes and introduced subsidies in rural China, local attitudes toward having several children shifted. It was rare to see more than three kids in a family.
After 2000, family planning policies had a much more diminished impact on rural populations. Those with a female first child or who were part of an ethnic minority group could already have a second child. Most people were willing to pay even thousands of yuan in fines to have a second child anyway, unless they truly lacked the means to do so. Nowadays, people tend to consider rising housing, health care, and education costs when planning to have kids — costs that are even more pronounced in more urban areas. In addition, with women’s elevated social status, they’re taking their own living standards into account when thinking about giving birth. Personally, I don’t think it matters whether we loosen the policy, since it doesn’t have a huge impact on population growth anymore. What will have an effect is building better social welfare facilities.
Sixth Tone: You’ve gone from working in the one-child policy to the two-child policy, and from regions with ethnic Han people to one with ethnic minorities. What has been the biggest challenge for you?
Liu Yafei: In the early ’90s, our country didn’t have much social welfare, and so for many, having more children meant a greater sense of security. At the time, I’d just graduated and didn’t fully understand the nature of this work. At first, I really struggled with how we were going against marriage and birthing traditions that had been around for thousands of years, even though I had been trained and understood the policy. It took a while, but I eventually grasped the importance of population control. Few people understood family planning, and we were often on bad terms with members of the community. People cursed at us and even threw things at us. For those who say that changing traditional views toward families was the hardest part, I’d say the lack of social security was even harder.
A woman carries her child in the Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Congjiang County, Guizhou province, Nov. 29, 2016. Ning Jian/VCG
Sixth Tone: After the two-child policy, many began looking at how the role of family planning officers has changed. What’s your understanding of the situation?
Liu Yafei: There was strong public opinion about family planning work, which often influenced how people understood it. The two-child policy did affect some family planning officers: They lost their authority as departments shifted or disappeared entirely. Some officers from certain areas of Hunan protested; some county-level authorities even closed their family planning offices altogether.
The work of family planning officers has undergone this sort of change. In the beginning, it was about terminating pregnancies and issuing fines, whereas offering guidance and spreading public awareness are now the standards for high-quality service at family planning facilities. To perform these services, family planning officers must first understand these policy changes as well as the actual situation on the ground, so that there isn’t a disconnect between the two. As such, the work is performed more proficiently. So, the jobs of family planning officers must not — and indeed will not — be done away with.
Sixth Tone: Currently, many reports point to low birth rates and the aging crisis, and even mention offering rewards for having additional children. What do you think about encouraging more births?
Liu Yafei: Personally, I think it’s unrealistic to establish a childbirth allowance in China. The country has a large population, and I don’t think it will ever get to the point of needing people to give birth.
An aging population and low birth rates are not unique to China: They’re issues worldwide. We should face the problem head-on, but also not exaggerate it. Population is a complex issue and is intertwined with all aspects of society. The government should focus more on developing the economy and technology, and improve education, housing, health, and employment — all of which would create better conditions for childbirth and living in general. In the meantime, it ought to focus on preventing birth defects and improving the quality of its population.
I’m not one to comment on sweeping policy reform, but China doesn’t lack for population: It lacks responsible births and well-rounded people. This over-encouragement to have kids is just as wrong as the old way of preventing births. I think if the policy doesn’t remove birth limits, then it could perhaps develop into a three-child policy, or raise the childbirth quota for remarried couples.
Sixth Tone: The first draft of the civil code excluded family planning content. What are your thoughts on this?
Liu Yafei: I don’t think it’s right to remove family planning altogether. Family planning as a concept exists in any country, no matter if it’s about encouraging birth or limiting birth. It must exist. Family planning is about calling on all citizens to take responsibility for their families and for society when deciding to have children.
Editor: Hannah Lund.
(Header image: A boy passes a slogan promoting family planning in Lingtai County, Gansu province, April 4, 2013. VCG)