China’s one-child policy conundrum

Amid a soaring population of elderly Chinese, new leadership in Beijing is expected to review the decades-old policy.

Child old man
An elderly man in Beijing reads the local news tied to a tree [Jessica Dowse/Al Jazeera]

Beijing, China China’s fast-ageing population threatens a demographic disaster with too few young people to care for the elderly – a major problem that may lead to a review of the country’s contentious one-child policy.  

One-third of Chinese will be 60 or older by 2053, according to estimates by the National Committee on Ageing. There will be more than 200 million senior citizens in the country by the end of 2013.

While the one-child policy has been recognised for limiting China’s population to 1.3 billion people, its demographic ramifications are now becoming clear. Many researchers are of the opinion that the policy has profoundly aggravated China’s ageing crisis.

The China Development Research Foundation, a think-tank with close ties to China’s leaders, recently wrote a surprising report denouncing the one-child policy and calling for its abolishment.

China has paid a huge political and social cost for the [one-child] policy.

– China Development Research Foundation report

“China has paid a huge political and social cost for the policy, as it has resulted in social conflict, high administrative costs and led indirectly to a long-term gender imbalance at birth,” the report said.

According to the government, the one-child policy reduced hundreds of millions of births since it came into effect in 1979 under former leader Deng Xiaoping, and helped to lift countless families out of poverty.

However, the policy has now burdened a young workforce. The one-child generation must support the large, ageing population. Effectively, the one child will now have to care for two parents and four grandparents.

Burden of the young

Liu Xinran grew up in Beijing’s middle class. She is studying hard to get a good job after university graduation, but the 21-year-old worries about the future.

As an only child in my family, I have a lot of pressure to perform well, because the young people have to support and take care of the family. My parents, on the other hand, have each two siblings, so when my grandma gets sick, the aunts and uncles can take turns taking care of them.”

If the committee’s predictions become reality, the 52 per cent of the working age population in 2053 will not only have to support the one-third of Chinese seniors, but also the 16 per cent of children and new-borns.

Xie Bin, 22, a student in Xiamen in China’s southern Fujian province, says it is better for children to live close to their parents in order to take care of them.

Increased urbanisation has disrupted the traditional Chinese way of life that cherished family bonds, when the elderly used to live together with their children in their homes.

Old people feel alone a lot so we need to take our time with them,” says Xie. “Their pensions aren’t high enough, they live alone and nobody cares about them … I think it’s getting worse and worse.”

Many elderly in China spend their days in public parks, exercising and playing the game mahjong [Jessica Dowse/Al Jazeera]

Heavy fines and penalties for breaking the one-child policy have also led to increased numbers of forced abortions and sterilisations, leaving the country with a skewed sex ratio. Some estimates suggest 40 million Chinese men may never find a wife. 

Less-educated, lower-income men struggle the most. Even those lucky enough to find a spouse do not necessarily want children. High inflation of everyday goods and exorbitant home prices in many cities also make offspring unaffordable for many couples.

Some say the one-child policy is not the only reason for the decline of traditional large Chinese families.

Xie says people’s priorities have changed. “Chinese people mostly just care about how to make money and how to live a better life. And time is limited. You spend all your time making money.”

Liu Xinran is another young only child who agrees that individual priorities have taken over from the desire for a large family.    

My mother only wanted one child, even if the policy had not existed. She said, ‘Raising you has already occupied most of my time and energy. I still have my own things to do. I have hobbies and friends. I need time and personal space to fulfill my spiritual world.'”

The government has recognised the problems caused by the gender imbalance and banned sex-selective abortion, but whether or not these measures will suffice to counterbalance China’s ageing problem remains to be seen.

The deficiency of young workers is hitting China’s economy just when it needs to pay up for the elderly. The fiscal deficit is snowballing because of soaring pension expenses and augmented medical costs. The vast worker pool that fuelled the country’s booming growth of over the past decade is beginning to dry up.

End of one-child policy?

Debate is underway about phasing out what many see as an out-dated one-child policy, implemented at a time when the government provided people with housing, jobs and food.

The official line has always expressed a desire to keep the status quo. President Hu Jintao said just last year that China would maintain the policy in order to keep birth rates low, but it seems that might now change.

Just before the start of the 18thNational Communist Party Congress, bringing a once-in-a-decade change of power in China, the state-linked China Development Research Foundation think-tank published its bold report. 


China’s Communist Party Congress closes

This report is based on five years’ research on the problems of birth control and the ageing population,” Xie Meng, press officer of the China Development Research Foundation, said.It urged China’s leaders to discontinue the one-child policy immediately, and allow two children for every Chinese family by 2015.

The proposed plan would immediately allow two-child families in some provinces, with a nationwide two-child policy implemented by 2015. All birth restrictions would be removed by 2020.

According to Xie Meng, the timing for publishing the report had nothing to do with the current change of power.

“We published this report recently simply because that’s the time we finished it then. It has nothing to do with the 18th CPC (Communist Party) congress, though we will submit our report and suggestions to the congress … We don’t have any influence over the final decision made by the government.

Observers say the transition of power could either keep the demographical reform on the back burner, or changes could be hurried through to help polish the legacy of departing President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. 

However, it’s unlikely that reforms will happen quickly, as China’s ruling Communist Party is consensus-driven and generally slow-moving.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission was contacted for this story, but officials did not want to comment before the end of the congress.

How the new leadership would deal with a new population strain on social services if the policy is revoked is another question altogether.

Professor Gu Baochang, from the department of demography at Beijing’s Renmin University, says action to reverse the policy needs to happen to now.

“From the law of population, we can see that the adjustment of the policy is already 10 years late, at least 10,” says Gu. “If we continue to delay it, we will be more passive, and the consequences will be even more critical. The generations born in the ’80s and ’90s will be the main group to bear the aftermath.”

Source: Al Jazeera