China's population

Rethink the one-child policy before it's too late

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:12pm

Thirty years ago, when the one-child policy was instituted, population growth was viewed as a hindrance to economic reforms. By reducing numbers, wealth would be more rapidly accumulated and poverty eradicated, the thinking went. In mere years, through severe penalties and strict enforcement, the birth rate was dramatically cut. It is a matter of debate how much that contributed to the nation's economic miracle - but it is certainly clear what some of the side effects have been.

It has created a massive gender imbalance, helped nurture a generation of spoiled children, and increasingly burdened them with caring for growing numbers of elderly. It is time the policy was rethought.

Wealth and fertility rates are closely allied. As developed parts of Asia and elsewhere prove, rising affluence is generally accompanied by lower fertility levels. People have fewer children when they get richer, move from rural areas to cities and women join the workforce. The more wealth, the greater the desire for a comfortable lifestyle and a small family. In some ways, wealth provides a natural check on population growth.

But there are also times when it goes too far. Populations start to age, and shrinking workforces leave too few people responsible for the economic well-being of society. With so many elderly, medical costs soar. This is the prospect faced by Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea - and, increasingly, the mainland.

The population replenishment level is 2.1 children per woman - meaning there needs to be an average of 2.1 children born to each woman in order to have a stable population level. In developed East Asia, fertility rates are at much lower levels that are either near or at the bottom of global rankings, ranging last year from 1.37 in Japan to 0.92 in Macau. The official mainland rate has been hovering around 1.8 for the past decade. That is largely thanks to a gradual loosening of the one-child policy.

Rules have been relaxed for ethnic minorities, rural residents and couples who were single children themselves. A senior official estimated in 2007 that fewer than 40 per cent of the population was affected. Still, that accounts for a vast number of people in a country of 1.3 billion. In addition, the policy is more strictly enforced in some cities, where services are often severely strained. Such is the case in Shenzhen, where authorities are tightening regulations in the face of an increasing number of women going to Hong Kong and elsewhere to have second babies.

One can understand why local officials faced with ever-growing populations might think that way. But there are broader national concerns. The mainland's fertility deficit is not yet severe, but coupled with a rising tide of wealth, it is likely to plunge into troublesome territory.

Reversing the trend is not easy. Generous incentive schemes tried elsewhere are not having much success. Allowing more immigration is one option, but that is difficult to sell to populations in economic tough times. In short, getting people to have children when they do not want to is not easy.

The one-child policy was only supposed to last for a generation. Speculation has been rife of late that it will be scrapped. An official said recently that this was not the case and that it would be in place for at least another five years. However, given the looming demographic bulge that is coming, the policy should be revisited much sooner than that.