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China's Ageing Populace
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It is almost certain that China will grow old before it gets rich.

As early as the 1990s, experts had begun to discuss unwanted side effects of the country's family planning policy introduced in the late 1970s to check its surging population.

On Monday, Zhao Baige, vice-minister of the State Family Planning and Population Commission, said at a conference that the country will take counter-measures for these side effects. Instead of focusing only on controlling the population's size, the country will address all other major aspects of the issue, including people's quality, their migration and population structure, she said.

It is not that the country should abandon its effort to curb population growth. For a country with 1.3 billion people and 10 million newborns every year, the pressure is still there. We still cannot afford to let our citizens have as many children as they want.

However, it is true that we should not address this issue only by controlling the size of the population.

At this point, the construction of social security networks, especially in the countryside, should be the most important part of a package of policies to effectively address demography-related challenges.

An effective social security net will be vital for a country where the proportion of the population aged 60 and over is predicted to increase from just over 10 per cent at the moment to 30 per cent by 2050.

It will also address the root cause of many people's desire for more children - in many cases, for boys.

There are already social security networks in urban areas, although many of these are still rudimentary and cannot provide adequate services.

In China's vast countryside, families are serving as almost the only institutions that provide social security.

Without socialized institutions providing pensions and covering medical expenses, children's support remains the only thing people can turn to when they become old.

So it is understandable that people want more kids.

China has started an experiment in some regions by providing life allowance for rural residents over 60 who do not have sons. This is a commendable practice, already something like a prototype pension. But the 600-yuan (US$75) yearly allowance is still not persuasive enough.

In terms of a social security net with broader coverage that addresses major concerns of people, the progress has been very slow. Building such networks cannot be accomplished overnight. But the country cannot afford to drag its heels for too long.

(People's Daily October 11, 2006)

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