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Shanghai makes it easier to have a second child
( 2003-11-07 08:48) (China Daily)

Since China's Population and Family Planning Law was promul-gated last year, localities have been active in amending their decade-old provisions in line with the law. There are some subtle changes after these revisions.

The latest evidence is in Shanghai.

Last month, its draft regulation on family planning, which was submitted to the municipal people's congress for deliberation, attracted great attention.

The draft regulation, while preserving the one-child policy, making it slightly easier to have a second child.

Under the old regulation, if one member of a couple in rural areas is disabled to such an extent that it affects his or her labour capability, the family can have a second child. Under the amendment, such a right is extended to urban families.

For a couple in their second marriage, they can only have a child if one of them does not have one. The amendment removes that prerequisite, which means a newly organized family can still have one more child even if both of the couple have already had a child before their second marriage.

The old provision sets a four-year interval period between the first and the second child. Under the amendment, the interval is removed.

The draft regulation, after two more deliberations, is expected to be approved next year.

The loosening of these restrictions opens a small crack in the old family planning policy in Shanghai, one of the most densely populated areas in China.

In fact, similar policies have also been worked out in other areas, including Beijing.

The policy readjustments, though only small in scope, are hailed as showing more consideration to the families concerned. And such a move is definitely worthy of praise.

But experts point out that such amendments are also a choice by decision-makers facing the pressure of an aged society.

The current family planning policy seems to try to seek a compromise in curbing the rapid expansion of the population and in optimizing the population structure in order to prevent the ageing of society.

In 1979, Shanghai had the nation's oldest population. Its population has now recorded a negative growth for nine consecutive years.

In the absence of appropriate measures, the city will be trapped by a heavy burden of taking care of its aged people and will also face a shrinking labour force, an official from the city's legislative body told the Beijing-based China Newsweek magazine on the condition of anonymity.

What happened in Shanghai is a reflection of the general situation in the country.

Statistics indicated that in 2001, people of 65 years old and above accounted for 7.1 per cent of the total population in China, so it qualified as an aged society according to the 7 per cent standard set by the United Nations in 1956.

The pace towards a higher level of aged society gets even quicker.

By the middle of this century, people aged 60 and above are expected to exceed 400 million, more than one quarter of the estimated population peak of 1.6 billion.

Of course, the family planning policy is not a direct reason for an aged society in China, but it has definitely accelerated its early arrival.

Thanks to the family planning policy, which was enacted in 1978, some 300 million less people have been added to the population, experts estimated. Such great achievements have not only benefited China, but are also a contribution to the whole world.

The family planning policy has greatly relieved China's population pressure, but also resulted in the early arrival of an aged society.

Under the current situation, to continue the tight policy and a strict population control poses great risks, some experts cautioned.

Li Jianxin, a sociology professor with Peking University, suggested looser conditions for having a second child.

For the sake of a reasonable population structure, more families should be encouraged to give birth to a second child, Li told a social sciences forum in late September.

Experts' worries are not groundless, since the early arrival of an aged society will put more serious challenges on China.

An aged society usually develops in parallel with a county's economy. It is a result when an economy develops to a certain level. In reality it turns out to be a problem plaguing developed countries.

As a thorny problem for even developed countries, it is likely to cause more troubles for a developing country like China with still a weaker economic power.

So some even called for more radical policy readjustments and proposed a universal two-child policy.

But this is far from being a consensus.

Others still hold that population control should remain the top priority.

Tian Xueyuan, executive vice-president of China's population institute, thinks that a solution for an aged society lies in economic progress, improvement of social insurance system, and not in artificially raising the population.

Compared with an aged society, the over expansion of the population still constitutes a bigger threat to China's sustainable development, Tian said in China Newsweek magazine.

By making only small readjustments, local governments proved to have taken a very prudent attitude. Such prudence is necessary since a small policy change may eat away at the hardly-won achievements in family planning work accumulated in the past few years.

The first national law on population and family planning which took effect last year maintains the consistency of the policy in curbing population expansion.

At this year's national working conference in January, Zhang Weiqing, minister of population and family planning, vowed to consolidate the hard-won low population growth rate.

In 1998, the natural growth rate of China's population for the first time declined to below 10 per thousand people, and in 2001, the natural growth rate was 6.95 per thousand.

Also at the meeting, Zhang pledged to limit the country's population within 1.5 billion by 2020. It is set as a population target for building a well-off society, and also a basic condition for the country to basically realize modernization by the middle of this century, according to the minister.

Such a goal apparently does not allow a dramatic alteration of the current family planning policy. A slight policy readjustment is a more realistic choice by local governments.

The country's family planning policy has walked a rocky road in the past few years.

The idea to curb rapid population expansion was put forward in as early as 1953, it, however, was not seriously implemented until 1978 when it was written into the Constitution.

It was set out as a basic national policy in 1982.

When the first law on population and family planning took into effect last year, the work was brought onto a legal footing, ending an era when it was guided by only administrative policies.

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