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Major changes in population policies on the horizon
( 2003-08-20 09:14) (China Daily HK Edition)

The government is about to kick off a strategic programme spearheading research into and planning for the world's largest population during the next 25 to 50 years, according to researchers, with policy changes set to reach beyond current birth control measures to tackle a much wider range of population-related problems.

A young couple poses for a wedding photo session in front of a church in Beijing, while an elderly man enjoys the company of his grandchild. Problems, aside from birth-control issues, such as a rising gender imbalance and the ageing population have led to the present population policy shift. [Reuters]
The State Family Planning and Population Commission, established in March to replace the former State Family Planning Commission, is expected to enjoy more power in the administration and will co-ordinate population control and planning with two more new institutions, the Development and Planning Bureau and the China Academy of Population and Development.

"The key task for the two new set-ups is to map mid- and long-term population development plans," said Zhang Weiqing, minister of the commission.

The strategic planning programme will focus on the control, quality, structural adjustment and distribution of the population, as well as employment and human resources development, Zhang said.

The foremost work of the programme will be to draft China's first five-year population development plan, which will be an important part of the country's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010), the minister said.

The commission's new functions as a government administrator and co-ordinator on population, he said, will involve three aspects:

1. Co-ordination of policies. Besides population control directions, the commission will draft several different policies involving rewards, preferential treatment, financial aid and social security to encourage family planning;

2. Implementation of laws and regulations. The commission will work out detailed rules for implementing existing laws and regulations, which currently only provide general guidelines;

3. Co-ordination of government departments. The commission will devise a comprehensive family planning administration mechanism, as the work now involves more than 20 departments including public security, public health, civil affairs, finance, labour, personnel.

Zhang said his commission is ready to adopt a number of fresh measures to carry out the new tasks:

  •  Start piloting reforms in 19 prefectures across the country on the establishment of a nationwide social security system to encourage family planning;
  •  Set up a mechanism to enforce family planning and provide related services for migrant rural labourers in the cities;
  • Work on a detailed proposal to include funding for population and family planning purposes in the country's public finance systems;
  • Establish a nationwide data bank on women of childbearing age and promote e-government work concerning family planning;
  • Designate a number of rural areas to stage massive activities to help young women and families in difficulties created by the implementation of the family planning policies;
  • Promote co-operation with the United Nations and other international exchanges on reproductive health and other population-related issues.

Experts say the major shift in the focus of the present population policy is the result of looming problems, aside from birth control issues, such as the immigration of farmers, a rising gender imbalance, the ageing population and increasing unemployment pressures.

The new policy will also answer the need for strategic population research and planning, the lack of which currently hinders China's sustainable development, they add.

Population problems

Although China could claim a decisive victory in its population control efforts by the 1990s, other related problems have grown more serious, said Zhai Zhenwu, director of the Population Research Institute at China Renmin University.

Swimmers swarm a beach in Qingdao, Shandong Province. A much wider range of population-related problems are to be tackled by the State Family Planning and Population Commission. [China News Service]

First, the ageing population has become a concern. According to the results of China's fifth population census in 2000, the number of people over the age of 65 had already reached 88.11 million, accounting for 6.95 per cent of the national population, close to the internationally recognized criteria of 7 per cent that delineates an ageing society.

The elderly population is expected to surpass 300 million by the middle of this century, equalling one-fifth of the total population, which will create heavy social security burdens.

In China, elderly citizens are supported one of three ways - by the pension system, their families or themselves.

However, Zhai noted that social and family supports both meet with problems.

As the pension umbrella only covers urbanites, the larger number of elderly citizens in rural areas must depend on their families, but elderly farmers have fewer children as a result of the prevailing family planning policies.

In 1981, said Zhai, the central government promised to provide sound support to couples with only one child. However, those who supported the policy at that time now entering old age are receiving limited preferential treatment from the government.

Second, the gender-ratio imbalance is growing. Males will outnumber females by 43 million in 2010, creating still more serious social problems.

The gender ratio of new births for 1981 was 108.47 boys for every 100 girls, but that rose to 111.3 boys to 100 girls in 1990 and again to 116.9 versus 100 in 2002.

The ratio between males and females in the total national population was 106.74 versus 100 in 2000, approaching the international warning line of 107 to 100.

Third, soaring rural immigration makes population control difficult.

The number of people living in places other than their registered home towns doubled from 70 million in 1993 to 140 million in 2000. Most of them were farmers working in cities, which affects not only the accuracy of population statistics, but also the enforcement of family planning policies.

Fourth, unemployment pressures continue to increase. Besides a huge surplus labour force of 200 million in the countryside and the already high jobless rate of more than 8 per cent in urban areas, about 8 million Chinese reach working age every year.

At the moment, the country can only create about 8 million jobs a year, while more than 20 million need jobs at the same time.

Fifth, the effect of regional differences on health and quality of life need to be addressed. Compared with the relatively-developed coastal areas, the population in the western hinterlands faces problems both in terms of low-quality education and a high baby-and-mother death rate.

Considering its limited power, Zhai said, the new commission may fall short of expectations in attempting to take on so many complicated issues.

Difficult mission

The fledgling commission, with its newly acquired functions, will be transitional, according to Zhai.

Minister Zhang Weiqing (reading documents) at the first session of the 10th National People's Congress in March. [newsphoto.com.cn]

Strengthening strategic research and planning efforts are a must but will not be enough on their own to handle the population problems, he said, adding that those will require the integration of related powers now scattered throughout more than 20 governmental departments.

Zhai predicted the commission would be replaced by a State population commission in future that would be empowered with more functions to see to all population-related administration work, including birth control, marriage issues, population censuses, as well as the ageing population and soaring rural immigration.

Tian Xueyuan, a researcher with the Population Research Institute of the China Academy of Social Sciences, said the current commission should focus more on improving its co-ordination capacity before the new population commission is set up.

As the first step, according to the two researchers, the current commission should integrate its own data resources with those of the National Bureau of Statistics and the Ministry of Public Security.

Minister Zhang said the stress placed on the research and planning programme would not undermine family planning efforts.

On the contrary, he said, it should provide a better macro-environment for the work.

Strategic research and planning will be carried out only at central and provincial government levels, Zhang said, while the family planning departments of lower-level governments will continue to focus on birth control matters.

Although national birth rates have been lowered, he said, China is expecting a population growth of about 10 million in the next 10 years because of the fundamentally large size of the population.

Yet Zhang admitted the commission faced many challenges.

Besides a lack of talent in different sectors capable of fulfilling the urgent and important task of getting the planning programme started, co-ordination will not be easy either, as the commission will encounter conflicts between departmental and regional interests and the interests of different social groups and individuals.

Nonetheless, the establishment of a State Family Planning and Population Commission marks a giant step forward in the right direction.

Population Timeline

1956: Only one government official with the Ministry of Public Health works part-time on family planning issues.

1964: The State Council sets up the Family Planning Committee but the institution is abolished during the "cultural revolution (1966-76)."

1980: Top-level population experts at a meeting called by the central government urge the establishment of a population commission to comprehensively deal with population-related problems.

1981: The State Family Planning Commission (SFPC) is born.

1994: The SFPC starts pilot reforms with the establishment of a local population committee in Deyang, Sichuan Province, to replace its family planning committee and tackle looming population problems besides birth control.

1995: In Shanghai, where the registered population started recording negative growth in 1993, similar moves are taken to change the name of the local population watchdog.

January 2003: SFPC Minister Zhang Weiqing writes a letter to top State leaders, including Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao (who become president and premier, respectively, in March) to lobby for a change in the commission's functions and the insertion of the word "population" in its name.

March 2003: The first session of the 10th National People's Congress approves the establishment of the State Family Planning and Population Commission, together with other institutional plans put forward by the State Council.

Tian Xueyuan, a renowned population expert who attended the 1980 meeting, explained that the central government set up the SFPC instead of a population commission because it wanted to target the most severe problem at that time: the potential population explosion as a result of the baby boomers of the 1950s reaching childbearing age in the 1980s. The baby boom was the result of the government's encouragement of multiple births in the 1950s when most families had five to six children.

The commission's work was very effective, and vast numbers of family planning workers performed their duties in every corner of the nation's cities and villages.
In the 1990s, the number of children born to each family was brought down to 1.8.

At the end of 2002, China's population was 1.285 billion, of which males accounted for 661.15 million and females, 623.38 million, or 51.5 and 48.5 per cent, respectively.

With 16.47 million babies born in the country last year, the birth rate averaged out to 12.86 per thousand. Meanwhile, 8.21 million people died, for a death rate of 6.41 per thousand. The natural population growth rate was 6.45 per thousand.

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