China's controversial one-child policy has helped its rapid rise by restraining population growth. But the ageing of the generation that wrought the country's economic miracle is bringing forward the policy's use-by date. China now needs more babies, not fewer, to avoid the economic and social consequences of serious population imbalance. Discussion of the issue is no longer taboo, as evidenced by two prominent calls from academics this week for a review of the policy. This reflects a widening consensus in government circles on the need to revamp population policy, and public disgust over cruel enforcement and exploitation that the one-child rule has given rise to.
As we report today, police have launched a nationwide crackdown on a baby-trafficking ring, which paid poor parents for having children they would once have counted on for support in old age. Earlier, it was revealed a Shaanxi woman was forced to abort a seven-month-old fetus because her family could not afford the 40,000 yuan (HK$48,000) fine for having a second child. Corrupt officials have also used the one-child policy to extort money.
While it has long since achieved its aim, the policy 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 living standards continue to rise. The Communist Party can therefore claim its 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.
Three academics from a State Council think tank have called on the government to allow couples to have a second child, citing population ageing and a labour shortage. This is related to debate about raising the retirement age to 65 for everyone to slow depletion of the labour pool and ease pressure on social security funding. Such open discussion among government-employed academics is rare, and is seen as highlighting a major change in official attitude. As we also report today, 15 scholars have raised the pressure for relaxation of the policy in a letter to the National People's Congress.
China's stellar economic growth can be expected to slow over the next two or three decades. It will need abundant labour, home-grown skills and talent to sustain healthy expansion. On the other hand, it is still developing the social infrastructure needed to meet expectations for education, medical care and welfare for the elderly. It cannot afford a baby boom without solving these problems. Perhaps it is time to allow debate on the issues for the good of the nation.