Will China Ease Its One-Child Policy?

Article excerpt

A growing number of critics urge Beijing to relax the one-child policy to counter an aging population.

It might seem an innocuous move to outsiders but in China it was a game-changer. Authorities in Shanghai began encouraging newly married couples in the city to have two children.

The rationale: Under China's vaunted one-child policy - a cornerstone of economic and social planning for decades - the population has been aging too rapidly. Indeed, Shanghai, which has always had a relatively youthful populace, now has the same proportion of retirees as an average city in the United States or Europe.

The move last summer by the city of Shanghai marked the first time since 1979 that officials have exhorted couples to have more offspring. More important, it symbolizes a sharpening debate in the world's most populous country over one of Beijing's most fundamental totems.

A growing chorus of critics is warning that unless the government changes course, the nation's one-child policy will drive the Asian powerhouse into a demographic dead end. They see China growing old before it grows rich.

Officials are beginning to take note. Spooked by the prospect of only 1.7 active workers for every pensioner by 2050, they are quietly chipping away at Beijing's signature population edict.

They have another reason to worry, too - forecasts that within 30 years, 15 percent of marriage-aged men will be unable to find brides. The combination of the one-child policy and the Chinese preference for male offspring has proved deadly for female fetuses: 120 boys are born for every 100 girls - the highest ratio in the world.

"This will cause a grave humanitarian disaster," predicts Mu Guangzong, a professor at Peking University's Institute of Population Research.

The one-child policy has always been controversial abroad and unpopular at home. More than 70 percent of Chinese women would like to have two or more children, a study released earlier this year by the National Family Planning Commission found.

It is nonetheless a policy to which the government has attached fundamental importance since it was written into the Constitution in 1978. Officials say it has prevented 400 million births, and raised living standards for the children that were born. …