Population policy must strike right balance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 August, 2006, 12:00am

The mainland's population problem is not just one of size, but also of structure. In a worrying development, the structural problems are getting worse even though efforts to control growth are largely a success. The population is still set to increase, from 1.3 billion now to a projected peak of 1.45 billion by 2030, and the structural issues make the task of managing this growth that much more difficult.

Topping the list is the serious imbalance between the sexes, with many more boys born than girls. While the problem is not new, the fact that it is getting more serious despite measures to tackle it is unsettling. To prevent the abortion of female fetuses, the improper use of ultrasound equipment for sex selection has been banned in many parts of the country. Other measures include the Girl Care Project that encourages rural families to value daughters as much as sons and the offer of financial incentives to parents of girls. The last measure is particularly noteworthy, as it strikes at the heart of the problem - the underprovision of social services and lack of retirement protection for the country's mainly rural population.

Although traditional values favouring boys who can carry on the family lineage remain strong, they are fading as modern values of sexual equality permeate the younger generation. But until the countryside is covered by a proper social security system, rural people will continue to hang on to the idea that having a son is the most dependable way of providing for old age.

One encouraging sign is that attitudes towards child-bearing and parenting among the educated and urbanised Chinese are no different from those of their counterparts in the developed world. They are less likely to discriminate against girls and more inclined to have fewer or no children. In Shanghai, for example, declining birth rates have even prompted the city government to encourage the birth of a second child. Much as Hong Kong is fretting about a greying population, Shanghai is worried that its shrinking workforce will put a heavy burden on the young to take care of the elderly.

Currently, only about 42 per cent of the mainland's population is urbanised, and the rate is considered low relative to its level of industrialisation. Perhaps the most effective way of addressing the population's gender imbalance and bulging growth lies in quickening the pace of urbanisation.

To be sure, policymakers have already identified urbanisation as a solution to many ills, notably rural poverty. They regard managing the process of urban growth as a critical challenge. The household registration system that used to bind peasants to their land and bar them from coming to the cities has largely been scrapped. But peasants still face tremendous difficulties being accepted as city dwellers. City governments' means of funding and providing social services have yet to adapt to the reality that migrants from the countryside are a permanent feature that must be provided for.

From a macro perspective, the huge size of the mainland population remains the biggest concern. But the problem manifests itself in various forms in different parts of the country. Some of the structural issues are localised. Presumably, they could be eased by a freer flow of people between the countryside and cities and a significant boost to social services in rural areas. Shanghai may find declining birth rates less of a problem if young blood continues to flow in from other parts of the country and its retirees find relocation to the countryside a realistic alternative.

As Hong Kong tries to map out its own population strategy, the mainland's population trends are instructive. For cultural reasons, our rising number of unmarried women may not desire to pair up with bachelors from the mainland. Our borders with the mainland will, for a long time to come, impede mainlanders from flooding in. But the scenario of those borders coming down sooner than we expect - either by design or pushed by events - is one that we should not ignore.