A new postage stamp in China hints at a change in family-planning policy

Piggy in the middle.
Piggy in the middle.
Image: Du Yang/CNS/Reuters
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Earlier this week, China’s national post service unveiled a government-issued postage stamp in honor of the upcoming lunar year of the pig, prompting speculation that a change in the country’s family-planning policy is in the works.

The stamp features a smiling pig family with two parents and three little piglets, which some have interpreted as a sign that the government plans on lifting all birth restrictions. There is precedent for this type of unofficial policy announcement: Before China abandoned its decades-long one-child policy in 2016, in favor of a two-child policy, one of the two government stamps honoring the year of the monkey featured a mother hugging two baby monkeys, “depicting the joy of a reunited family,” according to the China Post.

Prosperity, unity, happiness, and pigs.
Prosperity, unity, happiness, and pigs.
Image: Jiang Dong / China Daily

China analysts have suggested that Beijing is planning to scrap limits on births for several months. The change is overdue, as the country faces one of the world’s lowest fertility rates, a gender imbalance that stokes social unrest, and a shortage of workers. In May, Bloomberg, citing unnamed sources, reported that the Chinese State Council was debating whether to replace the longstanding population-control policy with one of “independent fertility,” allowing people to have as many children as they want, as soon as 2019.

But whether the policy change will have any effect is up for debate. China first restricted births for most families to one child starting in 1979. In 2016, the government announced it would allow all families to have two children. This change had an immediate effect: In 2016, China recorded the most births since 2000, and nearly half of babies born that year had at least one older sibling. But the impact may have been short-lived, as decades of birth-control rules and public campaigns to shame parents into having fewer children prevailed. In 2017, the number of live births in China fell.

So even if another change in policy is coming, a change in mentality is another matter. For decades, Chinese women were subjected to forced abortions, heavy fines, and eviction, among other abuses, if they tried to have a second baby. A spate of recent editorials (link in Chinese) published in major state outlets calling on women to have more children has sparked a debate online about the government’s treatment of women. As Jiayun Feng writes in the newsletter SupChina, the conversation has largely centered on “why state media always uses a denunciatory and paternalistic tone when covering the topic, blaming families unwilling to have more children for being selfish, and objectifying women as mere tools for reproduction.”

China’s growing middle class, one of the largest in the world, has settled into the low birth-rate patterns familiar to many western countries. The actions needed to reverse that trend are more than will fit on a stamp.