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Why critics are not satisfied with the end of China’s one-child policy

A woman plays with her grandchild in a park in Beijing on Oct. 31, 2012. (Andy Wong/AP)

On the face of it, the end of China's one-child policy should be a cause for celebration. The law that restricted parents to having only one child had been the cause of awful suffering for many Chinese citizens. Worse still, it was based on a terrible misreading of the country's demographic future.

But the reaction from many critics of the policy has been muted, even skeptical.

“The move to change China’s one-child policy is not enough," William Nee of Amnesty International said in a statement. Human Rights Watch's Maya Wang said the decision was a positive step but that it "doesn’t change the fact that China’s family-planning policies remain coercive and abusive."

"China is not 'ending' its one-child policy," said Reggie Littlejohn, founder and president of Women's Rights Without Frontiers. "The core of the one-child policy is not ... the number of children the government allows. It's the fact that the government is setting a limit on children, and enforcing this limit coercively."

For many organizations, the chief concern is linked to the news that couples would now have a limit of two children. That change may make a dramatic difference in the lives of many parents, but many human rights advocates consider it an unnecessary and potentially dangerous limit. Worse still, while Beijing officially prohibits the use of sterilization and forced abortions, there have been several recent instances in which these practices have been carried out by local authorities. It's unclear how much more protection a woman would receive, if any, under the new rules.

"Couples that have two children could still be subjected to coercive and intrusive forms of contraception, and even forced abortions – which amount to torture," Amnesty's Nee noted.

Littlejohn went further. "Women will still be forcibly aborted under a universal two-child policy," she writes, adding that Chinese mothers will still be expected to get a government-issued birth permit before having a child.

Given that the Chinese state would retain coercive power over citizens' reproductive rights, many are worried about future scenarios. Some in China have even suggested that the government should encourage some segments of society to have three children.

Hopefully, China's decision to end the one-child policy is an acknowledgement of the fact that its 35-year-long attempt to control its birthrate through force and coercion has been a failure. Experts also say that any hope China has that it can encourage a higher birthrate may be misplaced. Over at the ConversationStuart Gietel-Basten, a social policy professor at Oxford University, argues that the decision is unlikely to have a major effect on overall fertility rates. The change is, instead, a "very pragmatic response to an unpopular policy that no longer made any sense," Gietel-Basten writes.

Critics hope that the new decision is merely the start of less Chinese government meddling in purely family matters. “The state has no business regulating how many children people have," Nee said.

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