China Says 'One Child' Policy Is a Success, but Problems Loom

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

( - China's government has ended any hopes that it may relax its controversial "one-child" policy despite concerns about abuses and warnings from economists about the ramifications for China of a rapidly aging and gender-skewed population.

Zhang Weiqing, the minister in charge of Beijing's National Population and Family Planning Commission, this week declared the policy a success, saying in an interview published on a government website that it had prevented the birth of 400 million babies over the past three decades.

"We've taken only 30 years to almost achieve what developed countries have done with population control targets in 100 years," he said. "I have to say our work is commendable."

Since the policy was instituted, the average number of children for each Chinese couple had dropped from nearly six in the early 1970s to 1.8 today.

The policy is controversial because it has involved coercive measures including forced sterilization and abortions, as well as punitive tariffs for those who exceeded the stipulated family size.

The policy restricts most Chinese couples to one child, although in rural areas and for some ethnic minorities, a second child is allowed if the first baby is a girl.

Boys are traditionally preferred by rural Chinese, as they can handle heavy labor and are believed to bring honor to their ancestors. They are also generally favored because they are seen as more likely to be able to look after elderly parents.

Combined, the one-child policy and gender preference have led to sex-selective abortions. Despite an official bid to stamp out the practice, the result is an increasingly skewed boy-girl ratio -- nearly 120 boys to every 100 girls, compared to the international norm of 103-107 boys for every 100 girls.

Zhang discounted rumors that the population control policy may be eased anytime soon, noting that China was expecting a baby boom over the 2006-2010 period, when a crop of people raised in single-child families reach child-bearing age.

"To maintain the current low birth rate, the family planning policy must not change," he said.

One problem faced by Zhang's department is that wealthy people are reportedly violating the policy.

He said such offenders "should be tried by law and handled by party discipline."

Earlier this month, during the annual session of a political advisory body known as the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a population expert complained about wealthy and famous people sidestepping the population laws.

Monetary penalties were not ideal when it came to business tycoons and entertainment personalities, said Yang Kuifu, vice chairman of the CPPCC's population committee.

He proposed that in such cases, offenders' personal credit rating should be tarnished.

The Xinhua news agency cited statistics showing that among affluent residents of Shanghai, China's commercial hub, 84 "multi-baby cases" had been registered over the past three years.

It said employees in government departments or state-run institutions could generally be kept in line because of fears of losing their jobs if they had more than one child.

This wasn't the case when it came to "private business people or celebrities."

Graying population, shortage of wives

Zhang said the population of 1.3 billion would probably stop growing by the mid-2030s.

But economists and other experts have been warning that the picture is not as rosy as some officials in Beijing suggest.

According to projection statistics available on the U.S. Census Bureau website, the proportion of China's population over 60 years of age will rise from 10.5 percent in 2000 to 32.2 percent in 2050.

Aging is a global problem, affecting many Asian and Western societies.

Even so, comparable figures for the Unites States are 16.2 percent in 2000, climbing to 26 percent by 2050 -- higher now than China's but overtaken before the middle of the century.

The trend and its implications are seen as considerably more serious for China because of the sheer size of the population and the absence of a social security net. A graying population also means a gradually diminishing labor force.

In a 2004 paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, demographers Richard Jackson and Neil Howe said that while today's great powers became affluent before their populations began to age, China may grow old before it grows rich.

By 2040, they said, China would have 400 million elderly people with no support unless extensive pension programs were launched soon.

Coupled to a large, graying population with few children to look after them, another problem is looming as a result of the one-child policy and preference for sons: Millions of young men with no women to marry.

At a recent event hosted by the CSIS's Global Aging Forum, political scientist Valerie Hudson assessed the security implications of Asia's gender imbalance. The problem is also serious in India which, together with China, makes up about 40 percent of the world's population.

According to a presentation on the CSIS website, Hudson said that by 2020, there would be 29-33 million "surplus" males 15-34 years of age in China: Between 12 and 15 percent of China's young men will be unable to form families.

"Will the prospects for peace and democracy in Asia diminish in lockstep with the value of daughters there?" she asked.

"China is going to be full of old people and rather earnest, frustrated young men," senior U.K. Conservative lawmaker David Willetts wrote in a Financial Times commentary last November.

"It will be one of the most dramatic and unusual demographic changes the world will have seen for a very long time, and Chinese leaders now would do well to plan for such a future."

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow