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The Economic Reasoning Behind China's One-Child Policy Change


We're going to start today focusing on a major change in China that was announced this week. After 35 years, the Chinese government has decided to revise its one-child policy, a policy that's shaped the lives of millions of people around the world. In a few minutes, we will hear a perspective from a Chinese social worker who describes what it was like growing up as a single child because of this policy. And we'll hear from a Chinese-American woman who came to the U.S. because of it. First, though, we wanted to ask what motivated the decision, so we called Carlos Tejada. He is the news editor of The Wall Street Journal in Beijing. We reached him via Skype. Hi, Carlos.

CARLOS TEJADA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Why now?

TEJADA: You know, the government is acknowledging reality. They just completed a meeting of top party leaders that is going to look at the economic blueprint for the next five years, but they're looking beyond that. The Chinese economy right now is in the midst of transformation. And the old system of relying on factories and relying on spending on highways just doesn't cut it anymore. They're looking for other ways of growth. China needs consumers, and it's going to be difficult to create a class of consumers when the country's graying and they're spending money and so much on resources, basically, taking care of an elderly population.

MARTIN: Has this been seen in ways that you can just see with the naked eye?

TEJADA: Yes. I mean, it's not hurting the economy just yet but you can see it here and there. You know, there's a company called Foxconn - and you probably know them - they assemble iPads and other gadgets for people like Apple. And for years, they've built their factories in the southern manufacturing belt of China. And migrant workers came down to that region and they filled up the Foxconn factories. Now, Foxconn, these days, is moving its factories into the interior. One reason they're doing it is because workers don't want to travel so far away from their families anymore. And what that tells you is workers are getting to be choosy, and what that tells you is the pool isn't quite as robust as it used to be.

MARTIN: How is this being received? You know, I'm reminded with a policy that's been in place this long, this is all that many people know. This is what they've grown up with and this has been the reality for their entire lives.

TEJADA: Well, that's right. It's enormous here. People have been talking about it since the announcement on Thursday, I guess it was. But here's the thing that you have to remember though, just because people are allowed to have two children, doesn't mean they're going to have two children. And in fact, two years ago, the Chinese government substantially undermined the one-child policy by allowing couples to have two children if one of them was from a single-child household. So what happened? You know, the birth numbers that came out a little less than a year later after that change was made were about less than half of what people expected. So why is that? Why weren't people having babies? And part of it is it's expensive to have babies in China. You have - it's expensive to do it right, you know. If you want to send your child to a good school and not one of the, sort of, memorization academies that you find a lot of Chinese schools are, you have to spend some money. Are you worried about air pollution? You need air filters for your home. A lot of people just don't want to have two kids, and that's a major problem for Beijing. And that's the next question they have to ask. Now that they've dropped the limits to one-child, how can you actually get people to have two children or more?

MARTIN: That's Carlos Tejada, China news editor for The Wall Street Journal. We reached him in Beijing. Thank you, Carlos.

TEJADA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.