YICHENG, China – Under China’s family planning regulations, most couples are barred from having more than one baby. Wang Hong and her husband, Zhang Jingfeng, are among those who were granted a second chance – and decided against it.
Instead, they have marshalled their resources behind their gregarious 9-year-old son, devoting two-fifths of their yearly income of 20,000 renminbi, or about $3,000, to send him to private school.
“I have to create good circumstances for him,” said Wang, 33, whose sparsely furnished home is heated by a wood stove. “If I had another child, what would our living circumstances be like?” Wang’s reasoning underscores an argument voiced with growing insistency by demographers who want China to abandon its one-child restrictions: like the couple in Yicheng, they argue, most Chinese want only one child anyway.
Perhaps more important, economists contend that China’s low birthrate, once an economic advantage, is now destined to clip the nation’s economic growth.
China’s rise has depended partly on a huge spurt in the number of workers as a percentage of the population. This surge has created a cheap, productive labour force for its factories, mines and construction crews.
Now the size of the work force is levelling off. Demographers say it will begin to shrink within just five years, albeit slowly at first.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the elderly are swelling so fast that by 2040, projections show that the median age of Chinese will be higher than that of Americans, but Chinese will enjoy just one-third of the per capita income, adjusted for the cost of living. Experts say that will make China the first major country to grow old before it is fully economically developed.
“There are tremendous demographic crises pending, unprecedented in Chinese demography,” Wang Feng, who heads the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, a branch of the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said in an interview. “Very few people are arguing for this policy anymore.”
But as calls for a relaxation of the policy intensify, and official hints of looser restrictions increase, so do concerns that the one-child culture is now so ingrained among Chinese that the authorities may not be able to encourage more births even if they try.
A growing body of research suggests that much of the decline in Chinese fertility over the past three decades is not a result of the one-child policy and its various permutations, but of the typical drop in birthrates that occurs as societies modernize.
In Shanghai, so many eligible couples have decided against a second child that in 2009, population workers started making home visits to try to change their minds. Cai Yong, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, said that Shanghai’s and Beijing’s fertility rates were both estimated at 0.7 – fewer than one child per couple, and half what many demographers estimate is the national childbearing rate.
All this suggests that there may not be much China can do to manipulate the number of births. But it appears that as the reality of a shrinking work force draws closer, so does a loosening of government restrictions.
Prime Minister Wen Jiabao told the national legislature in March that China would “progressively improve the basic state policy on family planning.” It was the second time since October that China’s leadership had hinted at a policy adjustment.
Demographers said the most likely change would allow couples in some provinces to have a second child if either the husband or wife is an only child. Currently, most urban couples are allowed to have a second child if both the husband and wife are only children.
That would be just the latest erosion of the Great Wall of family planning. Since the policy was adopted in 1980, Chinese officials have been steadily chipping away at what still stands as the world’s boldest initiative to control the instinct to propagate. At least 22 exemptions have been carved out – some sweeping, some so obscure that only government officials seem to know to apply for them.
Still, Wang of the Tsinghua Center, one of a group of demographers that analysed the various exceptions and data from China’s 450 prefectures, calculates that 63 percent of Chinese couples are limited to just one child.
Government officials say the policy has averted a total of 400 million births in 30 years. But Wang and Cai estimate that at least 45 percent of those births would never have occurred anyway, as couples naturally limited their family size to fit the changing economic landscape.
Demographers also contend that China has overestimated the real fertility rate to help justify the one-child restrictions. In the early 1990s, China’s fertility rate fell below what demographers call the replacement level, or the number of births needed for one generation to replace itself. Officially, China estimates the current fertility rate at 1.8 children per woman. But Cai and other demographers estimate the real rate is just 1.5 children.
Scholars are also dismayed by the gender imbalance that has followed the one-child policy. When it was enacted, China was close to the birth-ratio standard for most societies: 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. Twenty-five years later, 119 Chinese boys were born for every 100 girls, one of the world’s most skewed sex ratios, according to a 2009 study by The British Medical Journal. In 2005, China had 32 million more males under age 20 than females, a disparity that researchers say will only worsen over the next two decades and could lead to social instability.
Wang and other scholars attribute much of the imbalance to the rule that allows many rural couples to have a second child if their first child is a girl. The regions covered by that exemption, they say, average nearly 130 male births for every 100 females. Researchers believe much of the disparity comes from couples who employ ultrasound tests to identify and abort female fetuses.
At first, China’s drop in fertility worked largely in its favor. The nation’s share of dependents – children and elderly – fell significantly in comparison to working-age citizens. “China entered an amazing demographic sweet spot,” said Michael Pettis, a Peking University professor and economist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. By some estimates, the growth in the percentage of workers over nonworkers accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of China’s economic growth between 1980 and 2000.
But now economists say the phenomenon of fewer births is turning into a negative. Wang said that China already had 14-percent fewer people in their 20s compared with a decade ago. In the next 20 years, he said, their numbers will dwindle an additional 17 percent, while the share of China’s population that is 65 and older is projected to double to 16 percent. By 2050, nearly one in four Chinese will be elderly, according to U.N. projections.
Arthur Kroeber, the managing director of Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic research firm, said the increasing productivity of China’s workers could blunt the impact of fewer numbers. Raising the retirement age – a proposal the government is now studying for women, who typically are required to retire earlier than men – could also prop up the work force.
“But inevitably, the shift in the dependency ratio means that the economic growth rate is going to slow down,” he said.
In the end, many experts agree, government population policies are no match for the inexorable demographic forces that will shape the coming decades.
“My view is they absolutely don’t need it,” Kroeber said of the one-child policy. “But I also think that if they abolished it today, it would have no impact.”