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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

China counts cost of one child policy

China counts cost of one child policy

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A lone child at a kindergarten in Wuhan©Reuters
Long Ting, a thirtysomething Shanghai mother, wants a sister for her seven-year-old son. But under China’s so-called one child policy, she faces a crushing fine of up to three times her family’s annual income if she has one.
Beijing has never had more incentive to abolish the controversial policy that is denying Ms Long her dream child: China is facing a critical shortage of workers caused largely by 30 years of restricting family size. Last year, the working age population of China shrank for the first time, threatening a mainland economic miracle built upon a pool of surplus labour.
Debate over the future of the policy is increasingly public, with duelling experts predicting in Chinese newspapers that it will end soon – or last for ever. Ms Long is not holding her breath that change will come before she is too old for child-bearing. But she thinks it has outlasted its usefulness.
   According to the 2010 census, the number of people over 60 has risen to 13.3 per cent of the population compared with a little more than a tenth a decade ago. Children under 14 comprise less than a sixth of the population now, down from almost a quarter previously.“Government policies should change with the times,” she says, as her son Long Zhen rides his bicycle around the high rise block of flats where they live in a Shanghai suburb. Thirty years ago, China needed the policy to deal with overpopulation. But now families need more children, not fewer, to deal with the problems of an ageing society, she says.
Perhaps surprisingly, as recently as 2008, most Chinese supported the one child rule. According to a survey that year by the Pew Research Centre, more than three in four Chinese favoured the policy.
Indeed, the one child ethos has so thoroughly penetrated the national psyche that millions of Chinese who are permitted to bear a second child – especially urban couples who are themselves both only children – choose voluntarily not to have one.
Demographic experts say even if it were abolished, family size would continue to be suppressed because many Chinese have simply got out of the habit of having larger families. According to the census, the estimated 2011 birth rate among women aged 20 to 29 was only 1.04 and in 2010 the overall birth rate in cities was only 0.88.
Many still dream of an “ideal” son-daughter pair but blanch when they consider the costs and hardships of raising a child in China’s highly competitive society, where grooming a child for university entrance exams is almost a full-time job for many parents.
But even if it is only a matter of time before the policy disappears, no one is predicting exactly when change might come. “We have been waiting for the other shoe to drop for a long time already,” says Cai Yong, a demographic expert at the University of North Carolina.
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
- China Development Research Foundation report
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence that the government is seriously considering altering what is referred to as the one child policy, though there are so many exceptions that many demographers call it the “1.5 child” policy – second babies are permitted where both spouses are only children, where a rural couple’s first child is a girl or handicapped and for ethnic minorities.
A government think-tank, the China Development Research Foundation, urged Beijing last year to allow two children for every family by 2015, according to the state’s Xinhua news agency. Perhaps the most encouraging sign came when state media interrupted normal broadcasting to announce that China’s first Nobel Prize for literature had been awarded to novelist Mo Yan, an ardent critic of birth planning
“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,” Xinhua quoted the report as saying.
But Mr Cai points out that any decision to scrap the policy would be taken by politicians, not think-tank experts. And there are significant bureaucratic obstacles to its removal, says He Yafu, a Chinese demographer: “The Family Planning Commission maintains it not in the national interest but purely in the interest of their department which would otherwise cease to exist.”
With luck, proponents of the policy will finally declare victory and withdraw – in time for Ms Long to have her little girl after all. And if not? “If the policy remains unchanged, people will always find ways to circumvent it,” she says.