published Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Swansbrough: China's one-child policy questioned

By Bob Swansbrough

In l979, as many Americans know, China launched a one-child policy to slow the growth of its huge population in order to foster economic development. In the early years, rural officials sometimes ruthlessly enforced the new policy. The traditional Chinese preference for male children-to continue the family line and provide for their parents in later years-led to sex-selective abortions and placing female children up for adoption. Many Americans, including the current U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, have adopted a Chinese-American daughter.

In my classes the students predominantly come from one-child households. The female students in private often tell me how they wished they had a brother or sister to discuss and commiserate with concerning the pressures they felt in school and as teenagers. They often expressed loneliness at not having a sibling, talking to their dolls when they were small girls or treating a cousin as a brother or sister.

However, the one-child policy mainly impacts urban families and government employees (such as city workers and teachers), approximately 36 percent of the population, who face being fired or fined for non-compliance. But because of a growing labor shortage in some first-tier cities like Shanghai, exceptions are granted if both the husband and wife come from one-child families.

In rural areas a second child is allowed five years after the birth of a couple's first child, especially if the first child is a girl. In ethnic minority communities and under-populated areas a third child is permitted.

In a March survey by the China Youth Daily in Beijing, almost 78 percent of the 6,183 respondents described having two children as the “perfect” family. Only 18 percent preferred a single child. But the increasing pressures of modernization, with both husband and wife working long hours to afford an apartment, car and a good education for their child, contributes to an increasing preference for only one child in such upwardly mobile families. Over two-thirds in the survey said their economic situation was the most important factor in deciding to have children, not unlike trends in the United States. The “China Dream” of a better life requires many sacrifices.

China's population of 1.33 billion today reflects a fertility rate (mean number of children born to women) of 1.7, with 2.1 births needed to keep the population stable. These figures are not dissimilar from other East Asian countries without strict laws: Singapore 1.04, Japan 1.38 and Hong Kong 0.91. It appears that as societies become more urban and the pace of economic life increases, couples voluntarily reduce the number of their children to improve their standard of living.

These changes place more pressures upon Chinese families, since only government employees and workers at large corporations receive pensions after reaching the compulsory retirement age, 55 for women and 60 for men. Therefore, 70 percent of elderly citizens, receiving no pensions or government assistance, must depend upon the support of their children. Most couples increasingly find themselves supporting one child, as well as the parents of both the husband and wife.

I visited a Chengdu kindergarten and saw the care offered to very young children, which was quite impressive. But at the end of the school day the boys and girls were generally met at the gate by a grandfather or grandmother, since both parents worked until much later that evening.

But the law of unintended consequences also impacted China's one-child policy. Because of the preference for male children, the ratio of live births of males to females has increased. Some blame sex-selective abortions, even though illegal, as well as poorer healthcare for female babies. A Shandong University professor calculated that men of a marriageable age will outnumber women by 50 million by 2020. Others estimate a 30 million gender gap. I heard a 31-year-old tour guide lament how hard it was for him to find a wife because of this gender imbalance-aggravated by the rising price of city apartments, demanded by many a potential mother-in-law!

China also confronts an aging society. The former director of the China Population and Development Research Center estimated that in 2009, 14 percent of China's population was over age 60. That trend peaks in 2040, when one-third of the nation's population will be above age 60. The need for a larger labor pool might lead to further relaxation of the one-child policy in the coming years.

China has long been a nation with a strong culture of frugality and saving, but medical costs and the limited availability of good nursing homes threaten many seniors. Many years ago China sent observers to examine America's social security system, but the costs were prohibitive to a government focused on rapid economic development. Nevertheless, the changing demographic figures and pressures from the growing urban middle class might compel the government to implement some badly needed reforms to benefit their older citizens-and allocate sufficient resources-in the near future.

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