Hopes for one-child policy fix tempered
Health commission plays down potential for relaxation of mainland's baby limit after action plan feeds hopes that change may be coming
The health commission has attempted to tamp down expectations for a relaxation of the one-child policy, after a policy paper and media reports excited hopes for change.
National Health and Family Planning Commission spokesman Mao Qunan told the Beijing Morning Post that the commission was not necessarily referring to the number of children a couple can have when it alluded to policy changes in an action plan released on Tuesday.
Among other public health initiatives, the action plan mentioned the issuance of "a revised scheme at an appropriate time to improve the country's family-planning policy".
"It is incorrect to interpret 'improving the family-planning policy' as a renewed sign of relaxing the policy to allow for a second child," Mao was quoted as saying. "Whether to allow couples to have two children … is a different matter from the family-planning policy revision."
Currently, the family-planning policy only allows urban couples who are both single children to have two children.
However, on Friday, the 21st Century Business Herald cited sources close to the commission as saying that authorities would relax the birth control policy by early next year and allow couples to have two children if either the mother or father is a single child.
And by 2015, the mainland would move to a two-child policy, the paper reported. Several media outlets followed up with similar reports.
After the Friday report, Mao said Beijing needed to make long-term family planning a fundamental national policy, which he conceded would be a major task of the newly formed health commission.
Some mainland population experts expressed surprise at the spokesman's remarks.
"As far as I know, support for changing the one-child policy also has a consensus among many high-ranking officials from the [commission]," said Huang Rongqing , a demographer with the Institute of Population Economics at Capital University of Economics and Business. "But only China's top leadership has the final say."
Professor Lu Jiehua , with Peking University's Institute of Population Research, noted that "the central government's 12th five-year plan [2010-15] pledged to make revisions to the one-child policy by 2015". The most practical way to do that was to allow couples to have two children, he said.
To avoid a population boom, the mainland has implemented strict birth-control measures since 1980, including the one-child policy, which has often been attacked as a violation of human rights.
Mainland population experts say that less than two-thirds of the population - those living in cities - are actually affected by the one-child policy.
Rural couples, who account for more than half of the population, are allowed a second child if their firstborn is a girl. The rest are ethnic minorities who can have two or more children.
The government credits the policy with reducing the country's birth rate to 1.8 in 2010 from 5.8 in 1970. However, the policy has increasingly been questioned by academics because of its many social and economic side effects, including an ageing population and gender imbalance.
"The birth rate has been extremely low in many areas due to social problems such as the soaring cost of living," said Ye Tingfang, a population expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He noted that people over 60 will account for 40 per cent of Shanghai's population by 2030.