Facing a demographic time bomb, China must move fast to end one-child policy
The baby boom expected for China with the easing of the one-child policy by the National People's Congress at the end of 2013 has not happened.
Many couples permitted to have two children have decided not to, putting financial circumstances, living conditions and careers first. But the low birth rate and fast-ageing population require that circumstances change, and quickly. Population control measures are now counter-productive to the nation's development; there is every reason for them to be scrapped.
A revised policy is being worked on by the National Health and Family Planning Commission and there have been hints of implementation within months. But the lack of official confirmation has raised doubts that it is a priority matter. Liberalisation to allow parents who were themselves an only child to have a second baby was slowly and unevenly implemented, creating confusion and reticence. Nor will it be an easy matter to reverse 35 years of indoctrination that having just one child is good. Yet changing minds and encouraging young couples to have more babies is what China urgently needs.
The one-child policy is behind a fertility rate of just 1.4, well below the replenishment level of 2.1. That has meant a rapid ageing of society and in consequence, a fast shrinking workforce, growing numbers of elderly and, due to a preference for males, a vast gender imbalance. The worse the demographics get, the greater the economy will suffer through low productivity, a decline in consumerism and the need for more government funding for pensions and health care.
The northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang , Jilin and Liaoning offer insight: they have the nation's lowest birth rates with a combined average of 0.75 and, economically, are among the five worst performing provinces. Reversing fortunes will require policy reforms, new industries and a younger population. For these provinces, as elsewhere on the mainland, a crucial element will be ending the one-child policy and improving conditions so that couples want to have bigger families.