The Most Surprising Demographic Crisis
New census figures reveal that China’s birthrate has dipped too low, meaning that the country with the world’s largest population – which began a controversial one-child policy in 1980 – may start to re-think its family-planning strategy.
New census data indicates that the total fertility rate is now far below the replacement rate
There has been a steep decline in the average annual population growth rate, down to 0.57% in 2000-2010, which is half the rate of the previous decade
Slower growth is matched by a dramatic aging of the population, with people over 60 now representing 13.3% of the total (up from 10.3% in 2000)
During the same period, people under the age of 14 declined from 23% to 17%
As these trends continue, a greater burden is placed both on young working people (who must support their elderly relatives) and on the government-run pension and health care systems
China’s one-child policy has not only skewed age distribution, but also gender balance, with some families using such methods as sex-selective abortions to ensure a male child
In 2010, there were more than 118 boys for every 100 girls; if this trend continues, then a fifth of today’s baby boys will not be able to find a mate
The census results are sure to intensify the debate between China’s powerful population-control bureaucracy and demographers calling for a relaxation of the one-child policy
Brookings-Tsinghua Centre for Public Policy director Wang Feng argues that China’s demographic pattern had already changed dramatically when the one-child policy began; the total fertility rate had been 5.8 in 1950 and declined to 2.3 (just above replacement level) by 1980.
Mr. Wang notes that other countries saw similar declines during that period, and that it was most likely due to better health care and drops in infant-mortality rates, which had previously caused people to have more children since not all were expected to survive.
So, China’s strict policies may have been unnecessary, since these changes – as well as improved access to contraceptives, which helped reduce fertility in Thailand and Indonesia – would have led to the same result.
Taiwan cut its fertility rate as much as China without population controls.
China’s government, however, denies that the one-child policy was irrelevant, citing the 400 million births (which the country could not afford) averted because of it.
“The momentum of fast growth in our population has been controlled effectively thanks to the family-planning policy.”— Ma Jiantang, head of China’s National Bureau of Statistics
The government has many reasons to maintain its defense of the policy:
- China is unique, and other countries’ experience is irrelevant
- Even if the policy didn’t do much to lower fertility at first, it might be keeping it low now
- If controls were lifted, population growth might rise.
However, these fears are not well-founded – the one-child policy hardly applies to China’s minorities and it is more lightly applied in rural areas, yet there is no population boom in those parts.
Target reductions in fertility rates were reached long ago, and with current rates below replacement levels and unsustainable, Wang Feng and his colleagues feel it’s time to adopt a two-child policy.
Even Mr. Ma of the National Statistics Bureau said the government might be open to “cautiously and gradually improving the policy to promote a more balance population growth in the country”.
Such statements could be a sign that a two-child policy might be in China’s future
Read the full article in The Economist
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