China's one-child policy enters new phase

Posted: 15 February 2001

Author: Ding Yimin

Author Info: Ding Yimin is a journalist with China Features in Beijing

Twenty-one years after it introduced its 'one child' population policy, China is keeping its promise to allow only-children who marry each other, to have a second child. This rule is now being applied in most provinces as these children start having families of their own. And Government officials have confirmed that the policy itself will be phased out once the first one-child generation has grown up.

However, that does not mean that the policy itself has been radically changed. "We will maintain our family planning policy as it is at least for the next 10 years," said Chen Shengli, director of the Information and Education Department of the State Family Planning Commission. "China is still trying to slow down and stabilise the country's population growth, and we cannot afford a bounce-back to a high birth rate."

Chinese children line up© Gangfeng Wang/Panos PicturesChina started to promote the one-child-for-one-couple pattern in 1980 when the central government published an open letter to all the members of the Chinese Communist Party and the Communist Youth League, encouraging couples of child-bearing age to have only one baby. Young people were also urged to marry and have their children later in life. But in rural China, families who have a daughter but need more than one child to help with farm work, are allowed to have two children. And while people from ethnic minority groups are also encouraged to practice family planning, the governments ofautonomous regions decide the number of children they can have. Normally a minority couple can have two children, and in remote areas they can have as many as they like.

Fewer births

As a result of all these efforts, China has had 338 million fewer births in the past 30 years, and more than 7,000 billion yuan (US$ 843 billion) that would have been used to raise these children has been saved.

The lowered birth rate also means that, in total, there are fewer children and elderly people that need support from adults (15 to 59 years old). For example, in 1998 there were nearly twice as many adults as children and elderly people, which is near the ratio in Japan and other developed countries.

More flexibility

However, as the first generation of children of one-child families has now entered childbearing age, couples in most provinces and regions will be allowed more flexibility in planning their families. Statistics show that except for Henan, Hubei and Gansu Provinces and Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, where local governments have decided to continue the one-child pattern, the other 27 provinces and regions in China allow couples who are both adult children from one-child families to have two children.

"This is not a sign that the Chinese government is making major changes to its family planning policy, and the policy will not greatly affect thepopulation size of the country," said Chen. "The one-child policy was only directed at one generation, as was stated in the open letter in 1980, and the policy means to keep the promise."

His words are echoed by Tian Xueyuan, general deputy president of the Population Association of China, who was involved in the drafting of thefamily planning policy in 1980: " No country dares to practice the one-child pattern for more than one generation, because this will result in an imbalance in the population, in which there are fewer young people than elderly people, who need to be taken care of."

He added that the one-child policy is not a perfect means to control population but it is effective in slowing down the fast growth a population as big as China's. By the year 2050, more than 22 per cent of the Chinese population will be above age 65, which is almost on a par with developed countries. This is the stage a country must enter before its population stops growing and begins to decrease

Peak population

By the end of 1999, the fertility rate in China was about two children for each woman, which shows that most people in China are still from families with two or more children. The reason for this is that most rural families (which account for about 70 per cent of the population) are still having two children. Some do so because the first child is a girl, some choose to ignore the policy and others, in remote areas, are having three or more children.

The result is that by the year 2000, China's population was 1,259 billion, or 21 per cent of the world total. However, because of the huge population base China is adding 13 million people each year, despite all its efforts at family planning. In the next decade China will try to keep its mainland population to no more than 1.4 billion and to ensure that the birth rate does not exceed 15 per thousand. It hopes that by doing so it can move from low growth to zero growth.

The population is expected to peak at about 1.6 billion around 2045-50 and then to slowly decrease. As it does so, the quality of life should improve, especially in terms of health and education.

Rural education

Some experts have argued that because a big percentage of urban families have followed the one-child pattern since 1980, while only small percentage of rural families have done so, the rural population is growing faster than the urban population in most areas of the country. This doesn't bode well for improving the education level of the nation, the experts said.

Chen points out that some people's opinion that rural folk are genetically inferior to urbanites is insulting. Many famous statesmen such Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping were born in the countryside, and there have been many scientists and other outstanding people born to farmers. He said it's just a fact that urban people usually receive a better education than rural residents: something that the government plans to correct.