China's Over-achieving One-Child Policy
   2013-02-20 14:44:52      Web Editor: Wang Wei

By Stuart Wiggin

China's one-child policy is a much debated issue and recently came back into media focus following the preliminary release of a report by the China Development Research Foundation (CDRF), a body under the State Council, which suggested that the policy should be adjusted and phased out over the course of the next 7 years. Xinhua cited the CDRF, stating that "by 2020, there will be no need to continue birth planning, as people will make more rational decisions on birth issues."

The Foundation also proposed that certain provinces be allowed to follow a two-child policy by 2015 as part of the readjustment process. CHINATALKS was able to talk with Professor Zheng Zhenzhen from the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences about the wider issue of China's one-child policy and its impact upon China.

Upon explaining why the policy was first introduced in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping, Professor Zheng noted that at the time, China had a very high population growth rate. In rural areas generally, the average family had three children and the initiation of the policy was intended to slow down the rate of China's population growth. However, according to Professor Zheng, the policy "over-achieved" its goal.

Zheng told CHINATALKS that at present, "Our growth rate is very, very low. We will see negative population growth in the near future." Despite the fact that the policy was implemented as a "temporary measure", it has persisted over the course of the past thirty plus years with a number of provisions which take into account family status and ethnicity. Today, the policy is mainly restricted to Han Chinese living in urban areas. As Professor Zheng told CHINATALKS, "Low fertility has (remained) for a long time. We observed a very dramatic fertility drop in the 70s before the policy was made. And then in the 1990s we observed another drop, to about 1.5; (meaning) about 50% of families only have one child. This situation has (remained) for two decades, and that made a very big contribution to this slow and close to zero population growth."

On the issue of fertility rates in urban versus rural areas, Professor Zheng stated that the rural fertility rate is currently slightly higher than that of the urban fertility rate, which stands almost universally at one child per family. The policy contributed to a faster fertility drop in some rural areas according to Zheng, but at the same time she pointed out that the fertility rate in urban areas was already low. In Zheng's opinion, the fertility rate in urban areas would have remained low without the policy. Professor Zheng noted that the greatest impact that the one-child policy has had upon China is its inadvertent creation of an ageing population, which Zheng claimed is the "largest challenge for China because historically, China has never observed such an ageing society. And it (leads to) changes in society and changes in the family also."

Many observers also point out that the one-child policy has exacerbated China's gender imbalance. At present, it is estimated by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that 119 boys are born for each 100 girls, in part due to the fact that the one-child policy exists alongside a traditional preference for male "heirs". But Professor Zheng interestingly downplayed this aspect of the one-child policy, despite the fact that her institute has been observing this growing trend over the course of the past decade.

Whilst admitting that the policy accelerated the gender imbalance, Zheng points out that the problem can and will change in the future, whereas the impending crisis of an ageing population will not. Zheng added, that the gender gap, "is related more or less to the social economic status of women, and women's role in the family; and also economic and social development, for example social welfare and old age support. A lot of things I think are complicated, but it is changeable and I think it will be improved in the future."

According to the CDRF's report, China's population has seen a declining annual growth rate, slowing to 0.57 percent in the first decade of the 21st century, down from 1.07 percent in the previous ten years. As a result of this declining trend in the growth rate, alongside a number of other factors, the CDRF has concluded that by 2020, there will be no need to continue birth planning as people will make more rational decisions on birth-related issues.

Professor Zheng echoed these opinions in her conversation with CHINATALKS, noting that, "The goal has been over achieved. Population growth has already slowed down. At the individual level, people's child bearing behavior has already changed; very few families prefer a large family size, so it's not necessary for such a policy to exist." Zheng also pointed out that even though the fertility rate may increase slightly if the policy is phased out in the near future, according to research carried out by the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, even without such a policy, families in China are unlikely to have three or more children.


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