Beijing must review population policies

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 May, 2011, 12:00am


The mainland's economy continues to surge forward at impressive rates. Income levels and living standards are rising in tandem, translating into better lives for millions of people. Policies that are in place are working fine, so no need to tamper with them, top officials contend. They would be justified in being complacent were economic growth and widening prosperity the only measures of success, but it is only part of the governance equation - as the latest census figures so plainly show. Beyond China now having 1.34 billion people, there is nothing impressive about the numbers revealed in the 10-yearly population survey - alarming would be a more appropriate word. It shows that the birth rate is far too low, society is ageing overly fast, there is too big an imbalance between the number of men and women, and a huge proportion of the population is not adequately covered by social services. Much of the fault lies with two long-standing government population policies - the rule that couples living in urban areas can only have one child, and the household registration system, known as hukou. Together, they are pushing the nation to a position where intensified social and economic tensions could threaten the gains of recent decades.

Here is what the one-child policy, introduced three decades ago to curb explosive population growth, has done. Between 2000 and last year, the population increased by just 73.9 million, halving the annual growth rate from 1.07 per cent to 0.57 per cent.

Those aged 60 or older rose in number by almost 3 per cent to 13.3 per cent of the population, while those 14 and under fell 6.3 per cent to 16.6 per cent. Continue these trends and project them into coming decades, and the consequence is plain: too few people of working age will have to support an overwhelmingly large number of elderly citizens, straining the country's economic well-being. As a society greys, its health care needs increase, further pressuring resources.

But that is only part of the problem. Parents' preference for boys, the widespread use of ultrasound scanners to determine sex, and the easy availability of abortion have combined to create a serious gender imbalance. While the census revealed the overall sex ratio had improved slightly between 2000 and last year to 105.2 males for every 100 females, the figure for newborns was 118.07 to 100. Men are already having difficulty finding wives and that will be exacerbated as the population ages. Severe social consequences could arise from this pool of men destined to remain single.

When the one-child policy was instituted, population growth was seen as hindering economic reforms. Fewer people meant a faster accumulation of wealth, and quicker eradication of poverty, the thinking went. Strictly enforcing rules that couples in cities and towns can only have one child and those in rural areas can have two if the first is a girl has certainly slowed population growth. How much this has contributed to the economic miracle is a matter of debate, but the consequences are obvious - and worrying. It is time to rethink the policy. That has also got to happen with the hukou system. The census showed the number of people who have moved from their hometowns, mostly to find work, increased 81 per cent to 261 million. They have generally lost the right to education, medical services and care for children and the elderly.

President Hu Jintao said on the eve of the release of the figures there was no need to change course. But the census reveals troubling trends. It is time to review population policies that have outlived their usefulness.