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China: One-child policy revisionism?

Does China have enough people? Ex facie, the question might seem absurd. But new census figures bolster claims made in the past few years that China is suffering from a demographic problem of a different sort: too low a birth rate.

The latest numbers, released on April 28 and based on the nationwide census conducted last year, show a total population for mainland China of 1.34 billion. They also reveal a steep decline in the average annual population growth rate, down to 0.57 percent in 2000-10, half the rate of 1.07 percent in the previous decade. The data imply that the total fertility rate, which is the number of children a woman of child-bearing age can expect to have, on average, during her lifetime, may now be just 1.4, far below the “replacement rate” of 2.1, which eventually leads to population stabilisation.

Slower growth is matched by a dramatic ageing of the population. People above the age of 60 now represent 13.3 percent of the total, up from 10.3 percent in 2000. In the same period, those under the age of 14 declined from 23 to 17 percent. A continuation of these trends will place ever greater burdens on the working young who must support their elderly kin, as well as on government-run pension and healthcare systems. China’s great “demographic dividend” (a rising share of working-age adults) is almost over.

The census results are likely to intensify debate in China between the powerful population-control bureaucracy and an increasingly vocal group of academic demographers calling for relaxation of the one-child policy. Their disagreement involves not only the policy’s future, but also (as so often in China) its past.

One of the academics, Wang Feng, director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy, argues that China’s demographic pattern had already changed dramatically by the time the one-child policy began in 1980. The total fertility rate had been 5.8 in 1950, he notes, and had declined sharply to 2.3 by 1980, just above replacement level.

Other countries achieved similar declines in fertility during the same period. The crucial influences, Wang reckons, are the benefits of development, including better healthcare and sharp drops in high infant-mortality rates which led people to have many children to ensure that at least some would survive. By implication, coercive controls had little to do with lowering fertility, which would have happened anyway. Countries that simply improved access to contraceptives — Thailand and Indonesia, for instance — did as much to reduce fertility as China, with its draconian policies. Taiwan, which the Beijing government regards an integral part of China, cut its fertility rate as much as China without population controls.

The government denies the one-child policy was irrelevant. It insists that, thanks to the policy, 400 million births were averted which would have otherwise taken place, and which the country could not have afforded. Ma Jiantang, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, insists “the momentum of fast growth in our population has been controlled effectively thanks to the family-planning policy”.

According to Joan Kaufman of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, official support for the policy is only partly to do with its perceived merits: it’s also the product of resistance by China’s family-planning bureaucracy. This has massive institutional clout (and local governments have a vested interest in the fines collected from violators). “The one-child policy is their raison d’être,” says Kaufman.

In his comments on the census, President Hu Jintao included a vague hint that change could be in the offing. China would maintain a low birth rate, he said. But it would also “stick to and improve” its current family-planning policy. That hardly seems a nod to a free-for-all. But perhaps a “two-for-all” may not be out of the question.

(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)