Dec 16, 2013 04:41 PM

Experts Wonder if Changes to Family-Planning Rules Are Too Little, Too Late

(Beijing) – Among the 60 areas covered in the Communist Party's "decision" document released after the third plenum of the 18th Central Committee, the most popular among ordinary people is a revision to the family planning policy to allow some couples to have a second child.

This new policy would allow couples that have one parent who grew up as an only child have a second baby. Whether or not a couple should have a second child is a decision that should be made within the family, but in China the right to make that decision has long been in the hands of the government.

The country's birth rate is already below 1.04, and many academics say the party has acted too late. The aging population and labor shortages are already burdens on the economy, and the willingness of younger generations to have children has hit a historic low. Many academics think that the government should not only allow second children, but that they should do away with family planning policies altogether and in fact begin encouraging families to have more children.

A Small Step

Liu Li, a housewife in Beijing, says that the change eliminates a great deal of hassle for her family. "We had planned to go abroad to give birth to our second baby, but then we calculated that would cost at least 300,000 yuan," she said.

Liu said that many of her neighbors have had a second child by going abroad. This has become something of a trend in recent years. The children are generally brought back to China to be raised.

"Only a very small number go abroad to give birth in order to get a green card," said Liu, referring to documents that would allow them to reside in a foreign country. "The vast majority go abroad for legal status."

Liu said bringing a child who has foreign citizenship back to China has involves own headaches.

"The child will eventually want to go to school," she said. "Education has become a major issue. You can send them to private schools, but that will require yet another big sum of money. To send them to public schools, you have to go through all kinds of procedures, and sometimes even then it's not even possible."

The changes to the so-called one-child policy will primarily affect urban families, says Zuo Xuejin, vice director for daily operations at the Shanghai branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). "There aren't many only children in rural villages, so the effects of the policy will be very limited. It'll affect cities more than anywhere else because only children are concentrated in cities."

The results of a preliminary investigation into families' willingness to have more children launched by the National Health and Family Planning Commission – which serves the dual dole of health ministry and family planner – shows that about 15 to 20 million people qualify for the policy revision, and of those about 50 to 60 percent of couples are willing to have a second baby.

Research by the commission indicates that not many couples meet the new criteria. Also, local governments will need time to get measures in place. So in the short term, there should not be any sudden population increase.

Zuo also said the policy change is just a small step. "It won't have a great impact," he said.

No Time to Lose

Even though it's just a small step, the policy change is seen as necessary and important.

"A massive population remains China's basic national condition, but structural problems of the population are daily becoming increasingly important factors affecting the development of the economy and society," said Wang Peian, the health commission's vice director.

The country's birth rates are already low and steadily declining. In the 1990s, the birth rate dropped below the replacement rate. At present it is on par with developed nations. If current policies continue unchanged, the population will rapidly diminish once it hits its peak level, which will affect long-term population growth.

At the same time, problems related to the structure of the population are becoming increasingly vexing.  The commission calculated there were 3.45 million fewer people of working age in 2012 than in 2011, and after 2023 the total will drop by an average of 8 million annually.

On the other side of the coin is the rapid aging population. The number of people aged 60 and above hit 200 million this year. That number is estimated to be 400 million by the mid 2030s, when the proportion of seniors to the total population will rise from the current level of one-seventh to one-fourth. The gender ratio will also remain a problem in the long term. As of 2012, it was 117.7 boys to every 100 girls.

There is also the problem of continued shrinking of family sizes. Data from the country's sixth census in 2011 showed that the average family size in China was 3.1 people, a drop of 0.34 from the 2008 census. More than 150 million families were raising only one child, and the percentage of seniors living alone is rising. The traditional functions of the Chinese family are growing weaker every year.

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