Every day, those of us living in Beijing mentally prepare to face overcrowded subway cars on our way to work. Riding the subway is an intimate experience as passengers are pushed up against one another. To avoid awkward face-to-face confrontation, you have nowhere to look but down at the ground. Getting on the car is a push to survive, and without adequate preparation, you will inevitably miss your stop. Overpopulated cities like Beijing naturally provide some rationale for the controversial one-child policy. However, this policy may be facing the end of its days.
This past week, the country's top legislators convened to discuss China's political and economic future. One agenda item that has excited many netizens is the "two-child policy." Mr. Wang Yuqing, a deputy director of the Committee of Population, Resources and Environment, has expressed support for changing China's family planning initiatives. Despite Beijingers' daily grumbles about congested streets and uncomfortable commutes, a careful look at China's demographics provides an early warning to policymakers for the need to change China's draconian population control measure.
The one-child policy instituted in the 1970s to curb the Communist Party's initial push for a large population has long been derided by activists all over the world as a clear violation of human rights. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, a large population was seen as vital to the country's economic survival. More people meant more workers. However, decades later, the government began to regret this philosophy and implemented family planning policies. Today, the one-child policy is lauded as an effective solution to challenges posed by a large population.
Having ameliorated Malthusian fears associated with overpopulation, China has another emerging problem – an increasingly older population. Countries all over the world are grappling with the aging population problem. Americans are debating policy initiatives to prevent the demise of our social security system. In the past, three workers were able to support one social security recipient. In the future, this ratio will be two for every one retiree. Europe's declining birthrates have led some countries like Germany to provide women with financial incentives to have children. While such measures are not necessary in China, the increasing elderly population does necessitate a revamping of family planning.
Putting aside the calls of human rights activists, there is an economic rationale behind relaxing the one-child policy. In the past, population control made possible rapid growth. However, recent reports of labor shortages have created anxiety in many sectors and have presented challenges for China's economic future. Until China can effectively produce white-collar work for its growing number of college graduates, its economy will continue to rely on the sweat of ordinary workers. Some reports indicate that China's nouveau-riche are becoming less inclined to have large families with some couples not even wanting children – a desire unfathomable in the past. Some families prefer pet owning to child bearing – hence Beijing and Shanghai's "one-dog policy."
Another demographic trend that has concerned China's policymakers is the gender imbalance resulting from the one-child policy. While the government has taken measures to prevent gender-based infanticide, China's traditionally patriarchal society has created a greater preference for baby boys. In 2010, there were 119 boys born per 100 girls. As indicated by the greater percentage of female orphans, girls are also more likely to be abandoned at birth.
Even current exceptions to the one-child policy are unfairly distributed. Couples in which both are "only children" can have a second child. In some cities, a family that first gives birth to a female may have another child. Those who have the money can pay a fine to have additional children. Such policies favor the rich and reinforce gender discrimination. A national "two-child policy" alone cannot effectively address gender inequality. It will, however, eliminate one reason for families to prefer a baby boy to a baby girl.
Proposals to increase the size of families must of course come with measures to support the social welfare of children all over China. Some restrictions must remain in China's large cities in order to prevent a struggle for resources. Caring for a growing population does not mean flooding China's coastal cities with more people. Rather, it means realigning priorities and placing greater attention to the economic development of second and third tier cities in the West.
China's Gini coefficient places it as an outlier among comparable countries – meaning inequality is larger than it should be for a country developing as quickly as China. The government needs to provide both domestic and international companies with greater incentives to invest in underdeveloped parts of the country. Unfortunately, the economic benefits of such investment will not come immediately, which means any new family planning policy created in the next five years must be implemented slowly. Whether one finds the economic or moral reasons to be more compelling, it's evident that the country's economic landscape and changing demographics requires that the one-child policy undergo a drastic makeover.
The author is an American working for an NGO in Beijing.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.