China's population

Baby steps to relax one-child policy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 4:12pm


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The mainland's one-child policy has long since achieved the aim of curbing population growth for the sake of faster economic progress. However, it has left a legacy of sex determination and abortion, distortion of the birth ratio in favour of males, an ageing society and the prospect of millions of men without women, destined to remain single.

At the same time, hundreds of millions have emerged from poverty, and incomes and living standards continue to rise - so the Communist Party's economic policies have worked. But if there is one that should be revisited now, before too few people of working age have to support too many elderly citizens and gender imbalance creates social instability, it is population policy.

It is good, therefore, that Guangdong has asked Beijing for permission to pilot a province-wide relaxation of the one-child policy, under which couples could have a second baby if either one of the spouses is a single child. That goes further than initiatives by some provinces to allow urban couples to have a second child if both of the spouses do not have siblings, and would further liberalise the rule that rural couples can have a second child if their first is a girl. Even though Guangdong is the most populous province, with more than 100 million people, the plan is unlikely to make much difference. Beijing remains unlikely to make a major shift away from a fundamental policy any time soon, but on humane and moral grounds any incremental dispensation that might bring that day a little closer has to be welcomed.

Strict enforcement of the rules has certainly slowed population growth and contributed to the economic miracle, but at the cost of a growing demographic deficit that could exact a high price unless the party changes course.

The latest 10-yearly census figures show that 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. Project these trends into coming decades and they pose a risk to economic gains. Indeed, many economists warn that China's phenomenal growth could be slowed by a greying society, a dwindling labour pool and pressure on social security.

Social science academics say that if more Guangdong couples are allowed to have a second child that would hardly budge the national birth rate, particularly given other disincentives like rising housing and living costs and the need to save for old age and health care.

Even a perceived benefit for Hong Kong - fewer mainland mothers competing for maternity beds in the city in order to have a second child - is dubious. Right of abode in the city and other advantages for children born here remains a powerful attraction.