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China eases family planning policy

Since 2000, the fast development of the market economy has shifted the relationship between the costs and benefits of childrearing, which has discouraged more people from having children. The mindset of later marriages, later childbirth, fewer and healthier births came into vogue. A growing number of couples began to have a single child out of choice.

The fifth national population census in 2000 showed China's fertility rate was 1.22, but the sixth national population census conducted in 2010 showed the figure was only 1.18. And analysis of data from the National Bureau of Statistics shows China's fertility rate was only 1.05 in 2011.

As a result, China's demographic problem is becoming grave. The ratio of the population aged from 0 to 14 years old in the total Chinese population dropped from 33.6 percent in 1982 to 16.6 percent in 2010. In 2012 for the first time China saw a drop in the country's working age population, as the number of people between 15 and 59 years old fell by 3.45 million. The decline in the working age population poses a threat to China's economy as well as its national defense.

What's more, the risks associated with single-child families are manifold: families are bereft of children, as families who observed the family planning policy but later lost their single children are often too old to have a second baby, society is rapidly aging, generation conflicts are becoming more acute and there is a growing gender imbalance and labor shortage.

The National Committee on Aging estimated that there will be more than 200 million people aged 60 or above by the end of 2013, and more than 400 million by 2033. China's fast aging society will increase the burdens on households as well as society.

The sixth national census showed that in 2010, 118.06 boys were born for every 100 girls. A normal gender ratio is between 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. It is widely reported that by 2020 there may be at least 20 million single men who will be unable to marry because of the gender imbalance, which will be a risk to social stability.

Confronted by these potential risks, China needs to be aware of the fact that the earlier the population policy is eased, the better it will be. However, the experience of the four pilot cities showed permitting families to have a second child is far from enough, the authorities need to introduce incentives to encourage more qualified families to have a second child.

Changdao county in Shandong province has allowed families to have a second child for nearly 30 years, but it has still experienced negative population growth.

Simply easing the family planning restrictions to allow more families to have a second child is unlikely to increase the fertility rate to the replacement level at which population development is considered to be sustainable. This is because with the advancement of social and economic development, childrearing costs are on the rise, too. Meanwhile, the increasing social and economic engagements also weaken the desire to have children.

The family planning directives have to be accompanied by supporting policy orientations. To take the example of Changdao county again, even though a second child is permitted, local policy orientations remain the same as those in many other parts that observe the dominant one-child directive. A benefit-oriented mechanism, such as incentives for those who give up having a second child, discourage people from having a second child. Thus, many families, in fact only have a single child.

Undoubtedly, China should push forward further family planning policy reforms. It is high time that the government grasped the strategic opportunities to promote pronatalist policies, as well as grant people reproductive choice.

Reform of the family planning policies should aim to build happy families, as well as social harmony based on respecting people's right to have children. At the same time, reforms should be aimed at reducing or evading the risks brought by the country's low fertility rate.

The author is a professor at the Population Research Institute of Peking University.

(China Daily 11/18/2013 page9)

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