The New York Times
, April 07, 2011
China Ages, Birthrate Policy May Prove Difficult to Reverse
By SHARON LaFRANIERE;
Under China's family-planning
regulations, most couples are barred from having more than one
baby. Wang Hong and her husband, Zhang Jingfeng, are among those
who were granted a second chance -- and decided against it.
Instead, they have
marshaled their resources behind their gregarious 9-year-old son,
devoting two-fifths of their yearly income of 20,000 renminbi,
or about $3,000, to send him to private school.
'I have to create good
circumstances for him,' said Ms. Wang, 33, whose sparsely furnished
home is heated by a wood stove. 'If I had another child, what
would our living circumstances be like?'
Ms. Wang's reasoning
underscores an argument voiced with growing insistency by demographers
who want China to abandon its one-child restrictions: like the
couple in Yicheng, they argue, most Chinese want only one child
Perhaps more important,
economists contend that China's low birthrate, once an economic
advantage, is now destined to clip the nation's economic growth.
China's rise has depended
partly on a huge spurt in the number of workers as a percentage
of the population. This surge has created a cheap, productive
labor force for its factories, mines and construction crews.
Now the size of the
work force is leveling off. Demographers say it will begin to
shrink within just five years, albeit slowly at first.
Meanwhile, the ranks
of the elderly are swelling so fast that by 2040, projections
show that the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of
Americans, but Chinese will enjoy just one-third of the per capita
income, adjusted for the cost of living. Experts say that will
make China the first major country to grow old before it is fully
'There are tremendous
demographic crises pending, unprecedented in Chinese demography,'
Wang Feng, who heads the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in
Beijing, a branch of the Washington-based Brookings Institution,
said in an interview.
'Very few people are
arguing for this policy anymore,' he said.
But as calls for a
relaxation of the policy intensify, and official hints of looser
restrictions increase, so do concerns that the one-child culture
is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may not
be able to encourage more births even if they try.
A growing body of research
suggests that much of the decline in Chinese fertility over the
past three decades is not a result of the one-child policy and
its various permutations, but of the typical drop in birthrates
that occurs as societies modernize.
For example, in Yicheng,
the county in rural Shanxi Province where Ms. Wang lives, couples
have been exempt from the one-child policy for a quarter of a
century. Under a state experiment that was deliberately kept secret
until a few years ago, couples were allowed to have two children
if they married three years later than the minimum age for the
rest of the country. Initially they were also required to wait
six years between the first and second births.
Nonetheless, the county's
population grew roughly on par with the rest of the nation. 'People
don't think they have the money for two children,' said Shi Aixiang,
a preschool director in Yicheng.
The trend appears to
be the same in Jiangsu, a coastal province north of Shanghai.
Researchers interviewed nearly 4,400 women who were eligible to
have two children. Fewer than one-third of the mothers with one
child said they either wanted or might want a second, according
to a 2009 study published by the journal Asian Population Studies.
In Shanghai, so many
eligible couples have decided against a second child that in 2009,
population workers started making home visits to try to change
their minds. Cai Yong, a demographer at the University of North
Carolina, said that Shanghai's and Beijing's fertility rates were
both estimated at 0.7 per woman -- fewer than one child per couple,
and half what many demographers estimate is the national childbearing
All this suggests that
there may not be much China can do to manipulate the number of
births. But it appears that as the reality of a shrinking work
force draws closer, so does a loosening of government restrictions.
Prime Minister Wen
Jiabao told the national legislature last month that China would
'progressively improve the basic state policy on family planning.'
It was the second time since October that China's leadership had
hinted at a policy adjustment.
Demographers said the
most likely change would allow couples in some provinces to have
a second child if either the husband or wife is an only child.
Currently, most urban couples are allowed to have a second child
if both the husband and wife are only children.
That would be just
the latest erosion of the Great Wall of family planning. Since
the policy was adopted in 1980, Chinese officials have been steadily
chipping away at what still stands as the world's boldest initiative
to control the instinct to propagate. At least 22 exemptions have
been carved out -- some sweeping, some so obscure that only government
officials seem to know to apply for them.
Still, Mr. Wang of
the Tsinghua Center, one of a group of demographers that analyzed
the various exceptions and data from China's hundreds of prefectures,
calculates that 63 percent of Chinese couples are limited to just
say the policy has averted a total of 400 million births in 30
years. But Mr. Wang and Mr. Cai estimate that at least 45 percent
of those births would never have occurred anyway, as couples naturally
limited their family size to fit the changing economic landscape.
Demographers also contend
that China has overestimated the real fertility rate to help justify
the one-child restrictions. In the early 1990s, China's fertility
rate fell below what demographers call the replacement level,
or the number of births needed for one generation to replace itself.
Officially, China estimates the current fertility rate at 1.8
children per woman. But Mr. Cai and other demographers estimate
the real rate is closer to 1.5 children.
Scholars are also dismayed
by the gender imbalance that has followed the one-child policy.
When it was enacted, China was close to the birth-ratio standard
for most societies: 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. Twenty-five
years later, 119 Chinese boys were born for every 100 girls, one
of the world's most skewed sex ratios, according to a 2009 study
by The British Medical Journal. In 2005, China had 32 million
more males under age 20 than females, a disparity that researchers
say will only worsen over the next two decades and could lead
to social instability.
Mr. Wang and other
scholars attribute much of the imbalance to the rule that allows
many rural couples to have a second child if their first child
is a girl. The regions covered by that exemption, they say, average
nearly 130 male births for every 100 females. Researchers believe
much of the disparity comes from couples who employ ultrasound
tests to identify and abort female fetuses.
At first, China's drop
in fertility worked largely in its favor. The nation's share of
dependents -- children and elderly -- fell significantly in comparison
to working-age citizens. 'China entered an amazing demographic
sweet spot,' said Michael Pettis, a Peking University professor
and economist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
By some estimates, the growth in the percentage of workers over
nonworkers accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of China's economic
growth between 1980 and 2000.
But now economists
say the phenomenon of fewer births is turning into a negative.
Mr. Wang said that China already had 14 percent fewer people in
their 20s compared with a decade ago. In the next 20 years, he
said, their numbers will dwindle an additional 17 percent, while
the share of China's population that is 65 and older is projected
to double to 16 percent. By 2050, nearly one in four Chinese will
be elderly, according to United Nations projections.
Arthur Kroeber, the
managing director of Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic research
firm, said the increasing productivity of China's workers could
stave off the impact of fewer numbers. Raising the retirement
age -- a proposal the government is now studying for women, who
typically are required to retire earlier than men -- could also
prop up the work force.
'But inevitably, the
shift in the dependency ratio means that the economic growth rate
is going to slow down,' he said.
In the end, many experts
agree, government population policies are no match for the inexorable
demographic forces that will shape the coming decades.
'My view is they absolutely
don't need it,' Mr. Kroeber said of the one-child policy. 'But
I also think that if they abolished it today, it would have no
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