Tuesday 31 December 2013

China formally eases one-child policy

Abolition of labour camps, household registration reforms among NPC resolutions
The Sunday Times, 29 Dec 2013

Beijing - China yesterday formally approved loosening the country's hugely controversial one-child policy and abolished "re-education through labour" camps.

Xinhua news agency reported that the decisions were taken by the standing committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp Parliament, at the conclusion of a six-day meeting.

Reforms to the one-child policy will allow couples where either parent has no siblings to have two children, easing the strict family planning policy imposed more than three decades ago to prevent overpopulation in the world's most populous nation.

The abolition of re-education through labour, known as laojiao, will see existing inmates freed, Xinhua reported.

"Their remaining terms will not be enforced any more," it quoted the NPC resolution as saying.

China argues that its one-child limit kept population growth in check and supported the rapid development that has seen the country soar from mass poverty to become the world's second-largest economy.

Until now, the law has prohibited couples from having more than one child, although exceptions already existed for couples where both spouses were only children, as well as for ethnic minorities and rural couples whose first child was a girl.

But enforcement of the policy has at times been excessive. The public was outraged last year when photos circulated online of a woman forced to abort her baby seven months into her pregnancy.

Now China faces looming demographic challenges, including a rapidly increasing elderly population, a shrinking labour force and male- female imbalances.

China's sex ratio has risen to 117 boys for every 100 girls, while the working population began to shrink last year, Xinhua reported. The birth rate has fallen to about 1.5 since the 1990s, well below the replacement rate, it added.

The easing of the one-child policy is estimated to apply to 10 million couples.

The one-child policy reforms are expected to come into force in the first quarter of next year, according to a senior official from the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

The approval to end the labour camps, introduced more than half a century ago, closes the curtain on a dark aspect of the country's modern history long criticised by human rights groups and which the Chinese authorities admit is no longer viable.

China began re-education through labour in 1957 as a speedy way to handle petty offenders. But the system - which allows a police panel to issue sentences of up to four years without trial - soon became rife with abuse.

State media has cited the development of China's legal system as making the camps "superfluous", with their "historical mission" having come to an end.

A United Nations report published in 2009 estimated that 190,000 people were held in the camps.

The ruling party pledged at the meeting to reduce the scope of the death penalty "step by step" - China is the world's biggest judicial executioner. The NPC also vowed to accelerate reforms to the household registration system and loosen controls on the economy by giving markets a "decisive" role in the allocation of resources.


Is it too little, too late?

China is relaxing its controversial one-child policy. Why does the world's most populous country need more babies and will the policy relaxation work after 34 years of limiting its people's freedom in family planning? The Straits Times China Bureau's Kor Kian Beng and Ho Ai Li report.
The Sunday Times, 29 Dec 2013

Baby boom won’t last, say experts

For 14 years, as Ms Sun Yuejiu's father battled a muscular disease that left him bedridden till he died in 2009, her mother was also battling health problems such as gallstones.

In those years as a caregiver, during which she had to shuttle between hospital and home and dig into her savings for their medical expenses, Ms Sun, 34, said one question dogged her persistently: "Why am I alone?"

A single child, Ms Sun, a lecturer at Changchun University of Technology in north-western Jilin province, is a product - she thinks of herself as a victim, though - of China's government policy that limits most couples to having only one child.

"I felt very lonely in caring for my parents. When I got married in 2000, I envied my husband for having a younger sister to share the responsibility of caring for their parents," Ms Sun told The Sunday Times in Mandarin. Her mother is still in ill health.

In one of the most significant reforms unveiled by the new Chinese leadership under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has pledged to relax its strict family-planning policy and let more couples have more than one child.

Now, only three groups can do so: shuang du couples where husband and wife are from single-child families, those from the countryside whose first child is a girl or is handicapped, and those from ethnic minority groups.

The relaxed policy will allow couples of whom only one spouse is a single child, known as dan du, to have two children.

Across China, many dan du couples are weighing the pros and cons of having a second child even as the pledge made at the party's Third Plenum, a policy summit held last month, has reignited the debate over the one-child policy.

China's national legislature approved the policy change on Saturday and left its implementation to the local governments, some of which have pledged to start early next year.

Officials say the one-child policy has helped curb overpopulation and free up resources that fuelled the country's economic growth, but critics slam it for causing demographic woes such as a rapidly ageing population, gender imbalance and a shrinking workforce.

Also, some think the loosening up is too little, too late to boost birth rates, given how people have grown accustomed to having fewer children. Sceptics thus view it as a politically motivated move to improve the party's image rather than a genuine wish for more babies.

Fewer babies, please

China rolled out the one-child policy in 1979, restricting couples to only one child. At that time, it had just embarked on opening up and introducing market reforms under Deng Xiaoping, who re-emerged politically in 1978.

Better living standards were key goals that had to be realised so as to boost the legitimacy of the communist leadership after the decade- long traumatic Cultural Revolution. Chinese leaders wanted to make sure its population would not exceed 1.2 billion in 2000 so that its per capita income would hit US$1,000 by that year.

The policy also came at a time when a growing number of countries were concerned about population growth: Between 1976 and 1996, for instance, the number of governments who viewed their population growth rate as too high increased from 55 to 87, according to United Nations figures.

The Chinese government has credited the one-child policy with helping China have 400 million fewer babies, though some say this figure is an exaggeration and that its total fertility rate (TFR) would have fallen even without implementation of the policy.

China's TFR dropped by more than half, from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.8 in 1979, demographers Wang Feng, Cai Yong and Gu Baochang wrote in a paper published last year. Even without the policy, this would have fallen to 1.5 by 2010, they argued.

The rising costs of raising children, the drop in infant mortality and lifestyle changes such as better education and job opportunities for women and urbanisation would have contributed to the lower TRF.

China's current TFR of 1.5 to 1.6 is well below the replacement rate of 2.1.

What is for sure is that the policy fundamentally altered the structure of Chinese society. China's estimated 150 million couples with only one child accounted for more than a third of all families, they noted.

Ms Luo Xiaochang, 35, grew up with four sisters as her playmates, who shared her toys and now her responsibilities in caring for their ageing parents. But she and her husband, an only child, have a five-year-old daughter and are unsure about adding to the family.

"We are too busy with our jobs and our parents are getting old. We don't really have the time or resources to take care of another child," said Ms Luo, a native of southern Jiangxi and a lecturer at the Nanchang Aviation University.

More babies, please?

Calls for the one-child policy to be scrapped grew in recent years as the proportion of young people in the population shrank compared to their elders aged 60 and above. Those 60 or above are expected to make up 25 per cent of the population by the mid-2030s, up from 14.3 per cent.

Last year, the number of working-age Chinese aged between 15 and 59 fell for the first time, by 3.45 million people, sparking not only fears that there will be fewer workers to support the aged in China, but also that China will grow old before it grows rich.

Human rights activists also slam the policy for triggering millions of forced abortions and sterilisation at the hands of officials eager to meet birth targets set by the central government, and female infanticide, given the preference for male children.

But a study by Renmin University estimates that the policy change may produce between one and two million more births a year. This would be at most a 12 per cent increase in the number of babies, going by the 16.35 million births last year.

Various reasons account for the lower-than-expected spike. Chinese couples are getting used to the idea of smaller families.

A government study in eastern Nanjing city found that 40 per cent of couples who qualify to have more than one child did not want to do so.

Take research assistant Guan Li, 30, and her university lecturer husband, 33, as an example. The Beijing locals have a one-year-old son.

She said: "It is a stretch to have another child based on our household income of 12,000 yuan (S$2,500). With one child, we can ensure that we give our best to him."

Still, the expected one to two million spike in births could produce knock-on effects in other areas.

Economists say it would boost domestic consumption. Just look at how the share prices of baby milk powder producers China Mengniu and Yashili International Holdings rose after the policy tweak was announced last month.

Having another child means increased expenses, especially for education, which makes up 15 to 25 per cent of household expenditure, according to urban household surveys from 2002 to 2006, noted London School of Economics economist Jin Keyu in a paper.

It also means that Chinese parents, most of whom rely on their children to support them financially in their old age, may feel more secure and hence save less and spend more, she added.

Professor John Wong of the East Asian Institute in Singapore said the relaxation of the policy "may just have a one-off effect on higher births, for four to five years - just to satisfy the pent-up demand for more children by some couples".

The short-term spike in number of births can help China keep its TFR at 1.6 instead of having it dip below 1.5, he told The Sunday Times. The relaxation of the one-child policy will also help bring about a better sex ratio, he added.

China has one of the most warped gender ratios in the world, with boys outnumbering girls 117 to 100 at birth.

But not all observers think the policy relaxation will redress the gender ratio imbalance.

Professor Li Xiaoping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who opposes the easing of China's family planning policy, believes that the relaxation will worsen the gender imbalance.

Many urban couples who want a second child will likely want boys, he argued. "They will worsen the gender ratio because they want to have sons badly."

He also worries that the increased births would put greater pressure on resources such as school places and jobs.

While this is debatable, what the relaxed policy will likely bring about is a rise in the stock of singles without siblings.

"Those who want a second child will look for mates who are the only child. They will be snatched up," said Prof Li.

The projected extra births - which are estimated to number at least 25 million over the next 25 years - will buy China time to stave off the effects of a rapidly ageing population.

By 2050, one in three here is expected to be 60 or older.

Too little, too late?

But just how much time will China get?

According to the projections cited by Professor Yao Shujie of the University of Nottingham, who studies economies and Chinese sustainable development, this would be no more than 10 years. If the policy stays unchanged, China's current population of 1.35 billion is likely to peak at 1.41 billion people in 2028, he wrote in a blog.

Even if all Chinese were allowed to have a second child, this is likely to lead to at most 90 million more births, allowing China's population to grow for another 10 years to peak at about 1.5 billion by 2038, he added.

Most analysts agree however that the change is too little, too late and would not help solve China's demographic problems.

"It will slow down the decline of young people as a share of the total population. But it cannot change the population structure fundamentally," Prof Yao told The Sunday Times.

Prof Wong of the East Asian Institute said the boost in births will be short-lived.

"After this spurt in additional births, China's TFR will eventually fall back to its normal rate consistent with its existing socio-economic conditions," he added, citing factors such as the high cost of raising children and rising housing prices, which deter many from having more children.

Already in Shanghai, the TFR has fallen drastically to 0.7, below societies with low fertility rates such as Taiwan or Hong Kong. In Beijing, the TFR is below 1.

And even in the short term, the extra births are unlikely to add to China's shrinking labour force.

Peking University population expert Li Yongping pointed out that the new births will only join the workforce 20 years later.

"The slight increase will help relieve the ageing population situation but it can't really relieve the problem much as ageing is happening too quickly," he said.

Beijing local Josie Zhou, 37, and her husband, who are a dan du couple with a five-year- old girl named Izzie, worry that the policy relaxation has come too late for them to have another child.

"I feel very jiu jie (conflicted). I dreamt about this the night after the policy was announced. I want to have a second child but I don't really dare to. If I give birth at my age, I worry that the baby will not have good health," she told The Sunday Times.

But for some though, the policy change cannot come sooner, never mind the limited impact it will have in addressing the country's demographic woes.

Ms Sun and her husband, who will qualify as a dan du couple, are eager to have a second child so that their nine-year-old girl would have a playmate and also a sibling to help care for the couple in their old age.

"I'm determined not to let my daughter go through what I did," she said.

Change stirs up painful memories for many
Millions paid hefty fines or underwent forced abortions and sterilisations for violating the policy
By Kor Kian Beng, The Sunday Times, 29 Dec 2013

Xiangcheng (Henan) - It may have happened 24 years ago, but the villager in central Henan province remembers clearly the date she aborted her five-month-old male foetus. "Ba yue chu er," said the 57-year-old woman who wanted to be known only as Madam Zhang, referring to the second day of the eighth lunar month in 1989.

The night before that day, more than 80 people, led by the village leaders, had descended upon her house in a village that is about a 20-minute drive from Xiangcheng city, demanding that she undergo an abortion, recounted Madam Zhang.

Someone had tipped off the authorities about her pregnancy, which violated the one-child policy. She and her husband already have a girl, born in 1983, and a boy who was born three years later, and wanted another son.

"Those people were dismantling our rooftop and grabbing our farming equipment and blankets to force us to agree to an abortion," she told The Sunday Times, standing outside the same house where the incident took place.

"Of course I still remember the date. How does one forget such an experience?" said Madam Zhang, who takes comfort now that her two children have given her five grandchildren.

China's decision to relax its one-child policy may have brought cheer to many young couples. But for older couples, especially those in the countryside like Madam Zhang, news of the impending change has evoked only painful memories.

Since the policy was implemented in 1979, millions have paid hefty fines - known as "social support fees"- for violating the one-child policy or undergone forced abortions and sterilisation at the hands of local officials keen to fulfil the central government's birth targets. The fine can be several times a person's annual income.

Official statistics show that at least 335 million government- approved abortions and 200 million sterilisations have taken place.

And such practices are reportedly continuing to this day, even in the countryside where the policy has been relaxed for rural folk if their first child is a girl. Earlier this month, farmer Ai Guangdong, 45, who had five children, killed himself by drinking pesticide at a Communist Party chief's house after officials in northern Hebei province seized his family's annual food supply for violating the policy.

In August this year, Mr Guo Xingcong, 59, of south-western Yunnan province, also died by taking pesticide after officials allegedly forced him to undergo sterilisation, according to media reports.

His son, Zhengcai, accused the local family planning authorities of having harassed his parents since 2006 to be sterilised, even though both said they were too old to have more children.

"My family has never exceeded the birth quota. There are two children in our family. I am the younger one, and will soon be 26," he said. It's clear that this is about getting money, because they charge a fine in lieu of sterilisation."

Chinese demographer He Yafu estimates that about US$330 billion (S$419 billion) of fines have been collected since the policy was put in place.

Family planning officials across China last year collected US$2.8 billion in "social support fees". Much of these fees are collected illegally from unsuspecting or hapless parents willing to pay money to get the nod to have a second child.

A Xiangcheng farmer, 34, who gave her name only as Madam Zhang, said her family had to pay a 2,000 yuan (S$400) fine when she gave birth to a boy four years ago. She and her husband also have a daughter, now 10. "It could have been 8,000 yuan if we hadn't pulled some strings with the local officials to lower the fine," she told The Sunday Times.

Yet, as a farmer, she is allowed a second child as her first was a girl, thanks to a relaxation of the law in the mid-1980s.

The lack of transparency in where the money goes to has fanned public anger in China.

Lawyer Wu Youshui in coastal Zhejiang province, who in July this year pressed all 31 provinces to disclose the amount of fines they collected, was told that "the fines were often either returned to village and township governments as rewards, or kept by county family planning commission officials "for their own expenses".

The policy has become a cash cow for more than 500,000 family planning officials. With the policy facing its last days, the fear is that these officials may step up efforts to make money while they still can.

How they will behave will depend on the population control targets that the central government sets for them and how stringently it punishes those who fail to meet them, noted Time magazine in an article on Nov 19.

A 36-year-old family planning official, who works in central Anhui province and wanted to be known only as Ms Hong, said she is not worried about her livelihood despite uncertainty over the one- child policy even as she defended her job.

"These allegations are not true, at least not in Anhui where we follow the law. Also, I believe we are still needed... as the people will require public health services like sterilisation. If not, the government will surely have to redeploy us to other positions," she told The Sunday Times.

Couples in Shanghai prefer to stop at one
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2013

AS NEWLY-WEDS Tess Yao, 29, and her husband do not have siblings, their "only child" status allows them to have two children if they wish, as China eases its decades-long "one child" policy.

No thanks, say the Shanghai couple, who got married in September and intend to stop at one.

The high cost of raising a child, particularly in big cities such as Shanghai, is one key reason, Ms Yao told The Straits Times.

She cited recent news reports saying it would cost at least 2million yuan (S$418,000) to raise a child from the time he is born to his graduation from university.

"Two million yuan refers to the bare minimum. It will cost more if parents were to send the child for overseas education and holidays," said Ms Yao, who works as a branding executive in a property firm.

"I would rather have one child and give him or her the best, instead of overstretching my resources," she added.

Such a mindset among Shanghai couples explains why the financial city's total fertility rate is among the lowest in China.

In 2003, the rate fell to 0.68, reportedly the lowest in the world.

Last month, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) announced that it would relax the country's erstwhile strict population policy by letting dan du couples - referring to those in which one spouse is an only child - have two children.

Currently, only shuang du couples, meaning both spouses do not have siblings, rural folk whose first child is a girl, and couples belonging to ethnic minorities are allowed to stop at two.

The policy change is aimed at reviving China's flagging birth rates and also at tackling the twin problems of an ageing population and a shrinking workforce.

But analysts do not see the 400,000 dan du couples in Shanghai producing more babies soon.

The reason is that China's most populous city of 23 million people already has two million shuang du couples. Of this number, only 13,000 applied for permission to have a second child and just half - or about 7,000 - have gone ahead to have two children in the past five years.

A poll of 1,200 Shanghai residents conducted by Internet portal Sina after the CCP announcement found that 70 per cent of respondents did not want to have a second child.

The survey results are borne out by The Straits Times' interviews with 10 shuang du or dan du Shanghai couples.

Asked about having a second child, almost all said they were either not keen or still undecided, citing reasons that apply to only couples living in big cities.

One such couple are Mr Sun Li, 30, who has two older sisters, and his wife, an only child. They have a six-month-old girl.

While Mr Sun likes the idea of giving his daughter a sibling for companionship, he also sees the upside of having only one child.

"We can spend more time with her and not have to worry about sibling rivalry," he said.

The high school teacher also pointed out that to many urbanites like himself, the notion of having a son to carry on the family line is eroding.

"My parents are not pressuring us to have a son. I think the mindset is weaker here than in the rural countryside," he said.

Moreover, Shanghai couples no longer subscribe to the traditional belief of yang er fang lao, or raising children so that they will be well provided for in old age.

Another key reason has to do with the impact of childbearing, especially on a woman's career.

Marketing executive Zhu Weijia, 33, and her husband Li Dayou, 36, already have a three-year-old girl.

They are thinking hard about having another child and doing the sums that it will entail.

The shuang du couple's monthly expenses for their daughter come up to 4,500 yuan, which include such things as milk powder and childcare fees. The sum accounts for one-third of their household income.

Said Ms Zhu: "I am not a career woman as I believe family is the most important thing to a woman. But one's career is still important as it provides us with money to pursue our life goals."

Ms Quan Shanshan, who is 30 and is seven months pregnant, and her 33-year-old husband are not averse to the idea of having two children, but China's environmental problems worry them.

"My husband had a fun childhood growing up with a cousin close to his age. We believe having two children is better than one," she said.

"But factors such as air pollution in Shanghai are making us think twice."

For other couples in Shanghai, the policy change is a case of too little too late, especially since women in the cities tend to marry later and give birth later than those living in the countryside.

Age becomes a major consideration for older women such as media planning executive Sally Zhuang, 40, whose son is six.

If the policy had been relaxed at least five years earlier, she would have considered having a second child so that her son, Hengrui, has a play mate, Ms Zhuang told The Straits Times.

"How many women would be willing to have another child at my age?" she asked.

Shanghai's low birth rate also has to do with the hefty penalties that cities mete out to couples who flout the one-child policy.

Those in government jobs, for instance, could face the sack or be fined as much as 200,000 yuan.

Professor Zhou Haiwang, deputy director of population and development studies at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the Shanghai authorities should do more to encourage people to have more children as it is in the city's long-term interests.

"Shanghai's low birth rate means that it is heavily reliant on migrants, who tend not to be highly educated.

"This does not help Shanghai in its bid to become a talent hub," Prof Zhou said, adding that the government can start by making sure parents with two children are not penalised in any way.

For instance, couples with only one child get a one-time payment of 5,000 yuan each when they retire. Those with more than one child do not enjoy this perk.

Even then, Prof Zhou believes that a spike in Shanghai's birth rate will be temporary at best.

"The birth rate will fall over time as the high cost of raising a child in big cities will remain a major deterrent," he said.

In smaller cities, it's 'the more the merrier'
By Kor Kian Beng, The Straits Times, 30 Dec 2013

XIANGCHENG (Henan) - More than 30 billboards line both sides of a thoroughfare cutting through Xiangcheng, a county-level city in central Henan province.

One board reads: "Giving birth to boys or girls is an equally good thing; girls also carry on the family line."

Another advises: "Having many children is not as desirable as having the right number of children in optimal circumstances."

The placement of the billboards on a major road and the tone of their messages are part of the local government's efforts to change the thinking of Xiangcheng residents who want children, preferably sons.

From interviews with nearly a dozen locals, The Straits Times found that the residents do not want just a girl and a boy. By the way, the Chinese character hao, which means good, is made up of the characters for girl and boy.

"Locals believe that the more boys they have, the more help they will get on the farms. Also, it means the less likely they will be bullied by others," said Mr Zhu Jiwei, 27, who co-owns a jewellery shop in downtown Xiangcheng, a fourth-tier city of 1.2 million people which is a three-hour drive from the provincial capital of Zhengzhou.

A scene outside a kindergarten best illustrates "the more the merrier" mindset. Most of the adults who went there to pick up the youngsters were seen holding the hands of at least two children.

The strong desire for children in Xiangcheng and other cities in Henan triggered rapid population growth that turned the province into the most populous in China. The province sees about 1.1 million births a year.

In 2010, Henan became the first province whose population crossed 100 million. But having a massive population has brought negative repercussions, such as high unemployment.

Local officials also came under pressure since a key criterion for judging their job performance was per capita income. For instance, while Henan has been China's fifth- or sixth-largest economy since 1996, its per capita income is ranked only 15th or 16th.

Under pressure to keep its population in check, Henan stuck to the one-child policy even when all 30 other provinces and municipalities had relaxed it by 2002, allowing shuang du couples, or couples who have no siblings, to have two children.

But a combination of an ageing population and a "boys exceed girls" gender imbalance led Henan to relax the policy in November 2011. But in the past two years, only 600 shuang du couples chose to have a second child.

The small number, observers said, could be because younger locals are warming to the idea of having fewer children.

Take Mr Zhu, a bachelor who has an older sister.

"I plan to have only one child," he said.

For Ms Zhang Xia, 34, who runs a restaurant with her husband, there are no plans for a second child. Their son is nine.

"I don't think my son is lonely. There are many others here willing to have more than one child, so he has no lack of play mates," Ms Zhang said.

Now that China is relaxing its population policy to include dan du, or only-child, couples, the Henan authorities must make sure that the move does not set off a baby boom that will strain public services and, in turn, affect their performance appraisal.

Population expert Liu Zhenjie of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences believes that the desire for more children remains strong in Henan, as many locals prefer sons and bigger families.

"I believe the province will be the last to allow dan du couples to have a second child, like how it was the last to open up the policy to shuang du couples," he said.

Ms Zhang Li, 27, a wealth management professional in Xiangcheng, and her husband, are a shuang du couple with a three-year-old son. She hopes to have a girl. "I don't want my son to become too introverted. As it is, he doesn't talk much," she told The Straits Times.

Mr Wang Yanxiang, 37, and his wife have a 10-year-old son. They would like to have a second child but cannot do so because neither of them is an only child. This is why he believes the government should do away with the one-child policy. "People should be free to decide how many children they want," said Mr Wang, who works at a golf course in Beijing.

Easing one-child policy may be too late
China's one-child policy lifted living standards, but set a hard-to-reverse trend of demographic decline
By Joseph Chamie, Published The Straits Times, 11 Jan 2014

IN AN attempt to mitigate a near-certain demographic future of rapid ageing, shrinking labour force and critical gender imbalance, the Chinese government has adjusted its one-child policy. The decision demonstrates that, irrespective of a nation's politico-economic system, governments cannot avoid demography's juggernaut consequences. This mid-course correction in population policy will have marginal effect as China is ageing at a much faster pace than occurred in other countries. This, along with a shrinking workforce and critical gender imbalance, will increasingly tax the government.

China instituted its one-child policy in the late 1970s because it feared that its rapidly growing population placed an untenable burden on economic growth and improving standards of living. At the start of the 1970s, its fertility rate was above five children per couple and its population was growing at more than 2 per cent per year, adding more than 20 million Chinese annually.As a result of rapid declines in birth and death rates over the past four decades, life expectancy at birth has increased by more than 10 years to 75 years. With steep declines in fertility and increasing longevity, China's population has aged rapidly over the past 40 years, with the median age nearly doubling from 19 to 35 years.

The critical factor determining China's future population is the level of fertility. If China's current fertility of about 1.6 births per woman were to remain constant, its population would peak at 1.44 billion in a dozen years and then begin declining, reaching a population of 1.33 billion by mid-century and 868 million by the century's end. Constant fertility would reduce the proportions of children and the working-age population and nearly triple the proportion of elderly to 25 per cent. As a result, China's current potential support ratio of 8.3 working-age persons per retiree would fall to 2.5 persons per retiree by mid-century. Further reduction in fertility to 1.3 births per woman - the low variant - would accelerate population decline, with China's population peaking at 1.4 billion by this decade's end, then declining to 600 million by 2100. In 50 years, one-third of the population would be elderly and the potential support ratio would fall to an unprecedented 1.6 working-age persons per retiree.

Estimates, however, suggest the relaxation in policy may lead to an increase of up to two million births per year, possibly a 10 per cent increase - increasing China's fertility rate from the current 1.6 births per woman to about 1.8 births per woman. With such a rise in fertility, the medium variant, China's population would peak at 1.45 billion in 2030 and then decline to around one billion by the century's close. Again, the population would continue ageing, the elderly accounting for one-quarter of the population by 2050, and the potential support ratio falling to 2.6 working-age persons per retiree.

If China decided to further relax to a "two-child policy," the number of additional births might reach five million annually, with the fertility rate perhaps rising to replacement level. Under the instant replacement scenario, China's future population does not decline, but stabilises at around 1.6 billion by mid-century. The population, however, would still age, with the proportion of elderly rising to a fifth and the potential support ratio falling to three working-age persons per retiree.

If China ended the one-child policy altogether, future fertility could, although improbable, exceed the replacement level. For example, if Chinese fertility increased to a quarter-child above replacement, the high variant, China's population by the close of the century would be nearly 1.8 billion. China's population would not attain stabilisation, but would continue growing at about 0.5 per cent per year, an annual addition of eight million Chinese.

The relaxation of the one-child policy may improve China's gender imbalance at least at birth. With more couples allowed to have a second child, the effects of the son preference on the sex ratio at birth should, in principle, be reduced. Also with the changing role and status of women in China, attitudes towards daughters are becoming more favourable. China may follow the pattern in South Korea, where high sex ratios at birth declined to normal levels. Even if this does occur, the overall Chinese gender imbalance would remain for many decades.

No doubt uncertainty exists about the precise demographic impact of the most recent relaxation of China's one-child policy. Even if China were to experience a baby "boomlet", the country would continue to age, its labour force shrink and its gender imbalance persist for generations. Also, while a rise in the birth rate would increase the demands for housing, education, food, care and related services, at least two decades would pass before the boomlet babies entered the workforce and paid taxes. Moreover, the favourable demographic dividend of many workers and few elderly that has benefited China's economy since 1980 is coming to an end. Soon the numbers of working-age Chinese per retiree will fall to levels of more developed countries. Although China had hoped otherwise, increasingly it appears the population will become old before it is rich.

Irrespective of China's decisions to relax its one-child policy, fertility is not likely to increase markedly in the foreseeable future. Major forces pointing to continuation of low fertility include rising urbanisation, smaller and costly housing, expanding career opportunities for women, high costs and time pressures for child rearing, and changing lifestyles. China may soon discover, as many countries have concluded, that raising low fertility rates is more challenging than reducing high fertility.

The writer is a former director of the United Nations Population Division.


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