Looming population crisis forces China to revisit one-child policy

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009; A08

SHANGHAI -- Wang Weijia and her husband grew up surrounded by propaganda posters lecturing them that "Mother Earth is too tired to sustain more children" and "One more baby means one more tomb."

They learned the lesson so well that when Shanghai government officials, alarmed by their city's low birthrate and aging population, abruptly changed course this summer and began encouraging young couples to have more than one child, their reaction was instant and firm: No way.

"We have already given all our time and energy for just one child. We have none left for a second," said Wang, 31, a human resources administrator with an 8-month-old son.

More than 30 years after China's one-child policy was introduced, creating two generations of notoriously chubby, spoiled only children affectionately nicknamed "little emperors," a population crisis is looming in the country.

The average birthrate has plummeted to 1.8 children per couple as compared with six when the policy went into effect, according to the U.N. Population Division, while the number of residents 60 and older is predicted to explode from 16.7 percent of the population in 2020 to 31.1 percent by 2050. That is far above the global average of about 20 percent.

The imbalance is worse in wealthy coastal cities with highly educated populations, such as Shanghai. Last year, people 60 and older accounted for almost 22 percent of Shanghai's registered residents, while the birthrate was less than one child per couple.

Xie Lingli, director of the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, has said that fertile couples need to have babies to "help reduce the proportion of the aging population and alleviate a workforce shortage in the future." Shanghai is about to be "as old -- not as rich, though -- as developed countries such as Japan and Sweden," she said.

A gradual easing

Written into the country's constitution in 1978, China's one-child policy is arguably the most controversial mandate introduced by the ruling Communist Party to date. Couples who violate the policy face enormous fines -- up to three times their annual salary in some areas -- and discrimination at work.

Chinese officials have credited the policy with helping the country avoid critical strain on its natural resources, while human rights advocates have denounced abuses in the enforcement of the policy. In rural areas, some officials have forced women pregnant with a second child to undergo abortions. In addition, many couples have had sex-selective abortions, leading to an unnaturally high male-to-female ratio.

In recent years, population officials have gradually softened their stance on the one-child policy. In 2004, they allowed for more exceptions to the rule -- including urban residents, members of ethnic minorities and cases in which both husband and wife are only children -- and in 2007, they toned down many of their hard-line slogans.

Qiao Xiaochun, a professor at the Institute of Population Research at Peking University, said central government officials have recently been debating even more radical changes, such as allowing couples to have two children if one partner is an only child.

In July, Shanghai became the first Chinese city to launch an aggressive campaign to encourage more births.

Almost overnight, posters directing families to have only one child were replaced by copies of regulations detailing who would be eligible to have a second child and how to apply for a permit. The city government dispatched family planning officials and volunteers to meet with couples in their homes and slip leaflets under doors. It has also pledged to provide emotional and financial counseling to those electing to have more than one child.

The response has been underwhelming, family planning officials say.

Disappointing response

Although officials in one rural town on the outskirts of Shanghai say they saw an uptick in applications from couples wanting a second child after the campaign was launched, the more urban districts report no change. Huinan township, with a population of 115,000, for instance, is still receiving just four to five applications a month.

Disappointed Shanghai officials say that, despite the campaign, the number of births in the city in 2010 is still expected to be only about 165,000 -- slightly higher than in 2009 but lower than in 2008.

Feng Juying, head of the family planning committee in Shanghai's Caolu township, said financial considerations are probably the main reason many people don't want more children. "They want to give the best to their first," she said.

Yang Jiawei, 27, and his wife, Liu Juanjuan, 26, said they would love to have two children and are legally allowed to do so. But like many Chinese, they have only the scant medical and life insurance provided by the government. Without a social safety net, they say, the choice would be irresponsible.

"People in the West wrongly see the one-child policy as a rights issue," said Yang, a construction engineer whose wife is seven months pregnant with the couple's first child. "Yes, we are being robbed of the chance to have more than one child. But the problem is not just some policy. It is money."

Other couples cite psychological reasons for hesitating.

Wang, the human resources administrator, said she wants an only child because she was one herself: "We were at the center of our families and used to everyone taking care of us. We are not used to taking care of and don't really want to take care of others."

Chen Zijian, a 42-year-old who owns a translation company, put it more bluntly. For the dual-career, middle-class parents who are bringing the birthrate down, he said, it's about being successful enough to be selfish. Today's 20- and 30-somethings grew up seeing their parents struggle during the early days of China's experiment with capitalism and don't want that kind of life for themselves, he said.

Even one child makes huge demands on parents' time, he said. "A mother has to give up at least two years of her social life." Then there are the space issues -- "You have to remodel your apartment" -- and the strategizing -- "You have to have a résumé ready by the time the child is 9 months old for the best preschools."

Most of his friends are willing to deal with this once, Chen said, but not twice.

"Ours is the first generation with higher living standards," he said. "We do not want to make too many sacrifices."

Staff researcher Liu Liu contributed to this report.

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