Caixin
Apr 29, 2011 07:20 PM

You've Come A Long Way, One-Child Policy

China's 2010 national census results were released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) on April 28. The standard error officially released was drastically lower than the previous census in 2000. Alarming figures of the findings from the public results implied that there was no apparent sign of political tinkering in the results.

In this regard, the 2010 census can be called a success.

China's population currently stands at 1.34 billion, about 74 million more than the year 2000. The census results also pointed to slower population growth, with the annual growth rate between 2000 and 2010 at 0.57 percent, or half of the rate a decade earlier.

The gender difference of newborn babies in between 2000 and 2010 was 118 male to 110 female. In roughly two decades, 15 percent of young Chinese men won't be able to find a partner.

A much grayer population was also highlighted by census results showing that 13.26 percent of the population is above the age of 60, 2.93 percentage point higher than 10 years ago.

In the same window of releasing the census results, decision-makers have started to discuss how to deal with the implications of the results over the next two decades, including low birth rates, the acceleration of aging and an unbalanced sex ratio. Chinese President Hu Jintao said on April 26 in a party central conference that concerned authorities would have to deal with these demographic issues, and in particular, focus on the low birth rate.

But at the heart of this issue is: what level of birth rate should be maintained in China?

The total fertility rate (TFR) in China reached as low as 2.1 children for each couple on average more than 20 years ago, a level needed to replace the next generation with no population changes. Over the past decade, the TRF has been decreasing while authorities have repeated their emphasis on maintaining a low birth rate, by any means necessary.

The sixth census confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that the birth rate has hit an extreme low. The continuation of the low birth rate policy becomes simply wrong-headed in light of these facts.

First of all, it has been difficult for demographers to agree on what is a reasonable level of maintaining the birth rate. For many years, data reports from the NBS and the national population and family planning commission (NPFPC) have contradicted each other.

China's TRF was estimated as 1.6 by NBS, which was in line with most domestic and overseas scholar studies. The one released by NPFPC, however, was 1.8. The calculation based on figures of 2010 census led to the TRF being lower than 1.5. So is this the time to boost it from 1.5 to 1.8? In fact, the TRF of 1.5 parallels the level in Spain and Russia, much lower than most developed countries. If it is the true TRF, Chinese society will face serious demographic challenges in the future.

The varying levels of 1.5, 1.6 or 1.8, are irrelevant to the larger issue – which is that all are distinctively below the 2.1 level. With all variables left unchanged, the total population would become one fourth less for every generational replacement at a TRF level of 1.5.

A series of recent surveys on family planning reveals that young Chinese are unwilling to have more than 2 kids in a family, with an increasing number of young couples seeking lives of DINKs (Double Income, No Kids). Many demographers now worry that China's population is not prepared for the coming bulge in older generations.

All in all, the one-child policy must come to an end.

The author is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center in Beijing, and also the Distinguished Chair Professor in Fudan University's School of Social Development and Public Policy

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