Rethinking China's one-child policy

Anthony Germain on China's growing shortage of young people.

Believe it or not, despite having more than 1.3 billion people, China needs babies.

Thirty years after the one-child policy was introduced to control the population growth of what was then a backward and poor country, China — particularly urban China — is starting to see the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem is most acute in the big centres such as Shanghai where 20 per cent of the population is over the age of 60. That's almost double the national average.

Members of Shanghai's aging population go for a walk across from the city's historic Bund, the neighbourhood alongside the Huangpu River. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

The financial capital of the mainland also has the country's lowest birthrate and it is leading to a situation where the population is getting too old, too fast.

Policy debates in China aren't usually a very public matter, but behind the scenes at universities and institutes that advise the Communist Party there is a simmering debate about what to do.

"I believe it is time to relax the one-child policy because in the future we will have a serious challenge because of too-low fertility," says Zuo Xuejin, a population expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

"In the next five to 10 years there must be more substantial policy changes."

Pushing the loophole

Is the top cadre listening? It is hard to say. But in Shanghai, at least, local officials are promoting a little known rule to convince some newlyweds to have two children.

"If both the husband and the wife are only-children, under the regulations they are allowed to have two children," explains Zhang Wei Xin, the spokesman for the Shanghai Family Planning commission.

That may be a start. It is certainly a change from much of the history of the one-child policy, where officials charged with enforcement spent most of their time handing down heavy fines to people who dared to have more than one offspring.

In the countryside, where couples are allowed two children (as opposed to one per couple in the cities), rural parents often tried to get away with having several.

This resulted in fines and, in some cases, forced sterilizations and mandatory abortions.

I've spoken with cash-strapped peasants who couldn't pay the fines. They claimed corrupt officials imposed alternative forms of punishment by stealing furniture, motorcycles or any other property they were able to take away.

Today, though, Zhang's department is actively encouraging only-child couples in Shanghai to have larger families.

Shen Ci Chen, 27, and Gong Jue Rui, 26. Recently married, they have older parents to care for and are not sure they can afford children. (Anthony Germain/CBC)

"We are promoting it because the current generation of only children is really the first to qualify to have two children," he says.

At the same time, he allows, "it will take some time for this two-child policy to have an impact."

Couples today

Meanwhile, in cost-conscious Shanghai, young couples are mostly wondering if they can afford one child today, let alone two.

"I'm not even sure if we are going to have one child," says Gong Jue Rui, a 26-year-old woman who tied the knot this month.

Her husband, 27-year-old Shen Ci Chen, points out that they both have two sets of parents who are getting older and will need to be taken care of in the future. All of their friends are also only children.

"We don't think we can have two children," Shen says. "Only if I can make a lot of money, otherwise I won't even think about having two children."

Not enough moms

An aging population is just one of the imbalances attributable to the one-child policy.

Another ticking demographic time bomb is a potentially massive gender imbalance that has many experts predicting that as many as 45 million Chinese bachelors won't be able to find wives. There are just not enough Chinese women to go around.

Although it is illegal to terminate pregnancies on the basis of gender, many Chinese, when confronted with the one-child policy, have chosen to have female fetuses aborted.

The long-standing cultural preference for boys, compounded by the legal limit on the number of children, has shattered the natural gender equilibrium.

Today, almost 120 boys are born for every 100 girls. At the same time, China has effectively exported tens of thousands of infant girls through legal adoptions to Canada and other Western countries.

Professor Zuo says there's no easy fix to finding more females.

"Maybe we can eventually import brides from neighbouring countries such as Burma or Vietnam. But that isn't a solution because that will create problems in other countries."

The burden of aging

Though it seems unfathomable today, Zuo also says China will eventually lose its labour advantage to more fertile countries such as India and Bangladesh.

(India is projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2030, with an anticipated 1.53 billion people to China's 1.45 billion.)

China is not about to lose its comparative labour advantage in intensive manufacturing any day soon.

But the mid-term prospect is for a shrinking working-age population that will have to shoulder the health-care and other bills for a massively aging population.

While China calls itself socialist, it is still the adult children of the family — or the parents themselves —who are left with the financial burden of growing old.

When the one-child policy was enacted, most Chinese people died in their 60s. Today, many Chinese live well into their late 70s and beyond.

So far, Communist leaders have resisted calls to modify their population-control policies.

They may well fear that any rapid increase in the population would inevitably translate into lower average per capita income — at a time when the party likes to boast everybody's take home pay is on the rise.

Still, the fact that cities such as Shanghai are promoting a less restrictive two-child policy is evidence that some authorities are willing to test the limits even if the central government is not.

The government faces both a geriatric and gender crisis within the next two decades that could challenge the stated goal of building a "harmonious society."

The one-child policy was introduced as a "temporary" measure and now, almost three decades later, its days appear to be numbered.