Chinese Are Expecting a New Baby Boom

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 13, 2007

BEIJING, Dec. 12 -- China expects the start of a baby boom next year, state media said Wednesday, in a development that will further strain a country whose resources are already stretched thin by a population of 1.3 billion.

The "mini-baby boom" is partly the result of a relaxation in family planning rules in the 1980s, Zhang Weiqing, the country's top population control official, said in a speech, according to the China Daily newspaper. Exceptions were made to China's "one-child" policy in 1984, and children born since then have reached childbearing age.

"The desire to have boys or more than one child is deep-rooted and still very strong, especially in rural areas," Zhang said, adding that the newest boom could exceed 10 years.

China experienced a baby boom after the Communist Party came to power in 1949; a second boom occurred in 1962; a third boom was recorded in the late 1980s.

For more than three decades, China has imposed tight controls on population growth. By limiting how many people compete for scarce resources, the country has been able to lift millions out of poverty.

But population control policies have also contributed to a growing sex imbalance -- boys are preferred because they can carry on the family name and, unlike girls, generally won't move away after marriage. Because so many aging couples have had only female offspring and are prevented from having more children, they fear they will have no one to care for them in the future.

The Chinese government often complains that its "one child" policy is misunderstood by the West. Less often, it acknowledges that its policies to reduce births, particularly in rural areas, are ineffective. But that's the message to be taken from swelling migrant populations, experts say.

"The best pension is to have a boy. Farmers still don't trust girls to take care of them in old age, because they marry out," said Li Fan, a Beijing-based expert who studies family planning. "Nobody can really control how many children farmers have nowadays, especially now that they are so mobile."

Local officials sometimes tolerate Chinese who have violated the "one child" policy because violations lead to fines, and fines mean increased revenue for villages or cities. At the same time, when officials' promotions depend on meeting quotas, they have resorted to overzealous enforcement, including forced abortions and sterilizations.

In recent years, the central government has turned toward incentives rather than coercion as a means to limit births. A recent proposal would give pensions to poor farmers who have only one child or two girls.

"Many grass-roots family planning officials complain that it's very hard for them to pursue their work, because the central government's strict family planning policies haven't changed; yet at the same time, citizens are more and more aware of their basic human rights," said a longtime senior official who works on family planning issues but who was not authorized to speak on the record.

In some areas, urbanization and rising education levels have countered the preference for boys. Nearly 80 percent of couples planning to start a family said that they wanted to have both a boy and a girl, a survey by the National Population and Family Planning Commission showed last year.

But rising incomes also make it easier for Chinese to violate the "one child" policy and simply pay the fines.

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