Jan 20, 2010 06:19 PM

Rethinking The Population Crisis

A crisis is developing among the nearly 100 million households throughout China, one that has been building gradually and will affect the country greatly in the near future. This crisis involves the imminent risk of negative population growth (NPG).

It's hard to imagine that China, for years concerned about a population explosion, could be worried about too little growth. The country has a population of 1.32 billion people, and though that total is still going up, the increases are getting smaller and smaller. So even though China's population has increased since 2000, when compared with the previous generation in terms of the actual number of children born, the birthrate has declined 40 percent.

According to demographic researchers, Chinese couples have an average of only 1.5 children, which is well below the replacement rate of 2.1.  That means the population will inevitably begin declining in the near future. The impact will be huge, all but unavoidable and may take a century to reverse.

In terms of the country's policy on population control, 2010 will be a crucial year   because of three key factors. First, the consistently low birth rate since the 1990s will cause a noticeable contraction in newly available labor. The section of the population between 20 and 24 years of age will decrease sharply from 125 million in 2010 to just 68 million in 2020, a 50 percent decline in only 10 years.

Second, the government will soon initiate a new nationwide census. This survey will once again confirm that China's birth rate is extremely low and the population is gradually getting older. (One reason: Chinese life expectancy is getting longer, increasing 16 percent from 62 years in 1970 to 73 in 2007.)

Third, 2010 is the 30th anniversary of the first significant implementation of the One Child Policy. Calls for change will become more intense, and policymakers will face more and more pressure to reform population policies. 

China is not alone among low birth-rate countries facing such attendant social problems as aging labor forces and rising social security burdens. Unlike the latter half of the 20th century when the world witnessed a rapid increase in population, in the 21st century many countries, including Japan, Russia and South Korea, have already entered an unprecedented period of low birth rates and even what experts call "extremely low birth rates."

Unlike other countries, however, China still enforces strict population control. China's family planning policies appeared over 30 years ago and are now primarily characterized by the One Child Policy introduced in 1979 and implemented in the 1980s. Since then, the policy has been slightly adjusted on several occasions for both the urban and rural populations. But currently, over 63 percent of couples in China are permitted to have only one child.

Largely because of the restrictions of the One Child Policy, China has produced 104 million "single children." These youngsters account for approximately one third of the makeup of the total households in the country. Not only are they the country's future taxpayers, these sibling-less children will also bear the burden of supporting their parents as they get older. This pressure and subsequent risk to family cohesiveness will greatly surpass that of any previous generation in China.

An even more serious problem is that as long as the current family planning policies remain in place, thousands upon thousands of single children will continue to be born and the risk of labor shortages and lack of care for the elderly will only intensify. In addition, societal problems related to China's gender imbalance – according to one study, China has 119 male births for every 100 girls, compared with 107 to 100 in industrialized countries -- will become increasingly severe.

The unfortunate reality is that policymakers in the last century were unable to predict the negative consequences of the population programs and do not now see any urgency to reform them. Even though academics have already reached a common understanding on the necessity to institute policy changes, no real reforms have been able to get off the ground. This lack of progress can be explained by examining four long-standing and commonly held misconceptions.

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