Low fertility exacerbates imbalances

By Mu Guangzong
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, July 18, 2011
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[By Lauren Russell/China.org.cn] 

The theme of this year's World Population Day, "the world at 7 billion," had an unclear message. Instead of giving a complex assessment of global demographic issues, it focused on the number the world population is expected to exceed later this year – 7 billion.

According to the sixth national census conducted last year, China's mainland population is approaching 1.34 billion, falling below 20 percent of the global population for the first time. We only have one Earth, which requires healthy, harmonious and sustainable development. The number of people is only one part of the multifaceted population issue. Population problems are essentially development problems, and at their core lies structural issues such as an aging population, which puts an especially heavy burden on China's only children.

The most frightening of these structural problems is the spread of the "4-2-1" family, where an only child must face the unprecedented burden of taking care of two parents and four grandparents. On the other hand, the Chinese government has stressed the need to "put people first" in efforts to solve demographic imbalances and promote a coordinated solution to the problem.

Professor Mu Guangzong is from the Institute of Population Research, Peking University

The only way to make a breakthrough on this issue is by considering its various facets and viewing it from a perspective that recognizes their connections. At present, a comprehensive population policy and inclusive development are just catch phrases – they lack clear policy implementation. The government is powerful, but its perceptions and methods may not always be correct. Its judgment of demographic trends and decisions on population policy are a case in point.

There are signs that China is caught in the "low fertility trap." The government believes maintaining the current low fertility rate is conducive to the country's long-term stability. In other words, it thinks a low fertility rate is beneficial. There is no evidence that the government has quit its preference for a low fertility rate. It's completely blind to the impending risks brought on by the imbalanced population structure.

Many scholars believe that China's total fertility rate has already fallen below 1.5 or even 1.3 – extremely low levels. The willingness to have children is weakening with each new generation. Those who were born in the 1980s are less willing to have children than those born in the 1970s. And those who were born in the 1990s are even less willing to have children than those born in the 1980s.

Currently, the weighted average of desired fertility in urban and rural China is lower than 1.5. According to a survey on Chinese people's willingness to have children conducted by Horizon Research Consultancy Group, the desired number of children for a rural family was 1.51 in 2002 and 1.64 in 2010. The desired number for urban families is even less.

Such a low desired fertility rate has created a strong tendency for negative population growth. It's impossible to achieve sustainable development with constantly weakening population growth. If the current one-child policy remains unchanged, China will soon have to face a sharp decline in its labor force.

One-child families also have to face the challenge of taking care of the elderly. According to the sixth national census conducted last year, only 16.60 percent of the total population is under the age of 14, 6.29 percent fewer than that in 2000. Clearly, China's population growth potential has greatly been reduced, making structural problems even more profound.

Population's quality is also important. It is a concept with rich connotations. According to the sixth national census, the education level across China has generally improved. But although hundreds of millions of only children do well in school, their life skills are poor. Their intellect has developed faster than their personality.

The problems caused by spoiling children have been plaguing us for years. Recently, a study carried out by the British Royal Society of Medicine show that the spoiled children tend to be ill-tempered and sometimes even violent. The study reminds us to maintain a delicate balance between respecting children's rights and maintaining the authority of parents. It also reminds us to promote comprehensive development of people, optimize our demographic structure and focus on family well-being and social harmony.

If China pays too much attention to the quantity of the population and neglects its quality and structure, the imbalanced development of the new generation will have a lasting impact on family and social stability.

In a period of social transition, the accelerating pace of urbanization in China has posed an awkward question: how to provide equal treatment and services for both migrants and city natives? Many migrants have trouble integrating into society because of their relatively low education level, lack of skills and connections and restrictions from social policies such as the residence registration system, which limits migrants' access to health care and education services.

Urbanization is caught in a dilemma: On one hand, the government must guarantee that population growth won't sacrifice the environment and social stability. It has to protect the well-being of urban residents. But the scarcity of city resources means not all the migrants are able to enjoy them.

On the other hand, urban-rural and interregional development gaps are widening. Those gaps have become lasting forces driving people from poorer areas into cities. Yet this growing population of migrants has failed to enjoy the same treatment as urban natives. What to do about these "second-class citizens" has become a dilemma facing the government and society.

For the foreseeable future, more Chinese people will move from rural to urban areas, and their inferior status won't be improved. To maintain social stability, population distribution needs to be relatively stable. The more stable the influx of migrants, the easier it will be to integrate them into society. To this end, the government should try its best to protect and improve the living condition of the migrants. It will help them stay and become integrated members of urban communities.

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:


(This article was written in Chinese and translated by Li Huiru.)

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn


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