Putting population back on track

By Yang Ge
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, March 7, 2017
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A young mother shops for child safety seats in a department store in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, on September 19, 2015 (XINHUA)

The year 2016 has a special significance for China's demographics, as the new policy of allowing all couples to have two children became effective from January 1 that year. As a result, 17.86 million births were recorded in 2016, and the total fertility rate exceeded 1.7, the highest in a decade, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

At the beginning of this year, the State Council, China's cabinet, published the National Population Development Plan (2016-30). Furthermore, the National Health and Family Planning Commission issued the Development Plan for National Family Planning Work During the 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20) Period. Both the development plans state that China's family planning policy has completed the change from "quantity control" to "structural adjustment."

Strategy evolution

China's family planning policy can be traced back to the 1970s. At that time, policymakers tried to reduce the number of births by encouraging late marriage and late childbirth.

In the 1980s, policymakers restricted most couples to one child, and the country entered its strictest family planning phase. But the policy was met with stiff resistance in rural areas.

From 1984, policymakers started adjusting the policy. While a strict one-child policy was maintained in urban areas, couples in rural areas were allowed to have a second child under certain conditions. Couples from ethnic minorities with a population of less than 10 million were allowed to have a second or even a third child. The policy did not change much till 2000.

After 2000, it began to be relaxed gradually. Many provincial regions started allowing couples—if both were single children—to have a second child. From 2014, couples with just one spouse being an only child could also have a second child. In 2016, the two-child policy covered all couples.

Adjustment debate

The adjustments reflect the changes in Chinese thoughts on population.

In the 1970s and 1980s, most experts regarded a large population as a burden to society. They believed the shortage of food and other resources was due to China's large population and the only way to solve the problem was by limiting the population.

But in the 1990s, with the total fertility rate falling below the replacement level—the rate needed to keep the population the same from generation to generation—some experts started realizing the fallout of a stringent family planning policy.

After 2000, there were intense debates on the policy. Many experts said the negative effects of the policy had become more severe, such as the family support pressure faced by a gradually aging society and marriage pressure caused by a gender imbalance.

Facing the consequences, some experts supported a gradual relaxation of the policy, thinking it could help reduce the risks brought in its wake. Others believed a one-step method, totally abandoning the family planning policy, would address its negative effects within a short time.

The developing state

Thirty years after the implementation of the family planning policy, China's demographics have changed a lot. Instead of size, an age-wise imbalanced structure has become the principal challenge to the population policy and social development.

According to NBS figures, China's total fertility rate fell under the replacement level in 1995, falling further to below 1.8 in 2000. The experience of some developed countries indicates that once the total fertility rate falls below 1.3, the demographic structure will become extremely negative and it will be hard to raise the rate again.

Labor shortage is another problem brought on by the earlier family planning policy. NBS figures show that China's labor force has begun shrinking by 2-3 million each year from 2012.

Last but not least, the rapid growth of the aging population puts more pressure on the shrinking young population. Official figures show that the proportion of elderly people at or over the age of 65 in total population was 5.57 percent in 1990, but the ratio grew to 8.87 percent in 2010. China has become the only country in the world whose aging population is over 100 million.

Challenges and opportunities

The challenges brought about by the change in the demographic structure will be more serious for China than for developed countries.

In the past, the rapidly growing working-age population was an indispensable factor supporting China's rapid economic development, contributing about 20 percent. However, with the change in the demographic structure, the young population is reducing, leading to a shrinking consumer market and slow development of the manufacturing industries. Under such conditions, it is a challenge for China to find ways to upgrade structurally and come up with technological innovations to cope with other competitors.

Another challenge comes from the burden of the aging population. In order to cope with the rising aging population, the government has to increase taxes and insurance premiums, which will add the burden on average citizens. Meanwhile, more families will also face the heavy burden of taking care of their elderly members.

The challenges have pushed the government to take measures to adjust the family planning policy.

The National Population Development Plan (2016-30) proposes a series of measures. The first is to remove the restraints on childbirth. The government will fine-tune the policy adjustment mechanism for childbirth, increase related public services and improve social security and other supporting systems to achieve a suitable fertility rate, the plan says.

In addition, efforts will be made to strengthen reserves of human resources for further technological and social innovation. By 2020, China will realize universal senior high school coverage and achieve a 50-percent enrollment rate in higher education to improve the average educational level of the working population.

Measures will be taken to promote urbanization, improve policies on population migration and address the problem of an aging population. Women's development will be promoted and the protection of minors and the disabled enhanced.

The plan also says 100 million agricultural laborers will be relocated to urban areas by 2020. The government will also improve the social security system for the aged to guarantee their living conditions.

A family and community-based care system will be implemented to enrich the support mechanism for the elderly.

The author is an associate researcher with the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences


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