YICHENG COUNTY, SHANXI PROVINCE – It’s the kind of statistic that makes one pause.
In 10 years, mainland China added 74 million more people.
That’s about the size of Iran’s entire population.
Children at a school in Yicheng County.
But new figures from China’s latest census (2001-2010) also showed that the growth rate of its 1.34 billion-strong population is slowing down. Maybe too much.
In fact, if looked at another way, the average population growth each year in China over the past ten years was 0.57 percent, down almost half of what it was from 1990 to 2000.
Compare that to India, which has the world’s second largest population. It's population grew at an average rate of 1.7 percent a year in the same period. Or the U.S., the world’s third largest population, which grew at an annual rate of 1.1 percent – the highest of any industrialized nation.
Chinese state-run media, in reporting the census, have credited the one-child policy with curbing the nation’s population growth.
But increasingly over the past year demographic experts within China have voiced skepticism about the family planning practices that limit urban couples to having only one child and rural couples and ethnic minority households to two. (More recently, parents have been allowed to have two if each parent is a single child him/herself.) They say China didn’t and doesn’t need such an extreme policy.
An experiment within an experiment
Liang Zhongtang is one of those skeptics. A demographic expert affiliated with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, Liang has been a long-time critic of the one-child policy – which has been in place for just over 30 years.
“[Some Chinese] demographers said the population would be 300 or 400 million more without the birth control policy,” said Liang. “I think it’s meaningless to talk about this issue. The decrease in the birth rate is the result of industrialization and modernization.”
The slowing population growth rate, he continues, is just “a natural result as Chinese society develops.”
Liang should know.
A billboard outlining family planning guidelines in Xingtang.
He’s responsible for an experiment within China’s great social engineering experiment: In Yicheng County in Shanxi Province, all families are allowed to have two children – as long as they follow two stipulations.
“They can have another one as long as they wait four years [between the first and second child],” explained Wang Honglu, the family planning chief in Yichen's Xingtang town.
The other is that couples wanting to have two children must be married at an age later than the national average marrying age. In China, the legal marrying age is 22 years for men and 20 years for women, but in Yicheng men must be 25 years and women 23 years if they want to marry.
County officials devote a large part of their time to public awareness campaigns. Residents are encouraged to visit family planning clinics. Authorities visit homes, especially after a couple has just wed, to distribute literature and discuss birth control methods.
“We give out free condoms and birth control pills every month,” he said. “Everything is free.”
"This policy has been in effect since 1985," said Wang, who's worked in his field for 16 years. "But our birth rate here has been lower than many other parts of the country [which did not have a two-child policy]."
'Too expensive' to have children
But talking to some families in Xingtang, it became clear that it wasn’t simply the existence of family planning that was keeping the birth rate low.
“One reason to have only one child is to follow the nationwide policy,” said Wang Weigang, a 36-year-old who works in agriculture. “But the other reason is economic. It’s a big burden to bring up children.”
Wang and his wife, Ma Zhengxia, decided to have only one child. Their daughter, Yujie, is almost 2 years old.
“I’m not going to consider having another child for sure,” said Wang.
In fact, that’s exactly the sentiments of Wang Honglu, the family planning official. He is also 36 and has a daughter who is 12 years old.
“It’s just too expensive in general,” he said.
Both Wang families said they wanted to be able to afford to pay for school fees and other expenses for their daughters.
But like many aspiring middle class households in China who are seeing the cost of living skyrocket as their quality of life improves, they also want to have enough money to buy their own home and a car.
Yicheng’s experience, says Liang – the man who designed the county's experimental two-child policy, shows that “a looser [birth control] policy is better than a strict policy.”
More problems than solutions
Even if Liang is right, there are other compelling reasons for the government to reconsider its views on family planning.
“China doesn’t have overpopulation pressure,” said Zhang Juwei, the deputy chief of the Population and Labor Economics Institute at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “A structural imbalance is the real problem we’re facing.”
By that, Zhang means a whole host of problems that the one-child policy has engendered.
“Like the distribution of people in the rural and urban areas, like aging, like the gender imbalance. These are the problems we are facing, not too much growth,” he continued.
Key findings of the new census confirmed Zhang’s points, even prompting the official Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, to say “a crisis looms” and giving rise to a catchphrase found in much of the Western media coverage, that “China will grow older before it gets richer.”
Among the findings:
- the number of people age 60 or over has grown nearly 3 percent while the number of people under 14 has decreased by more than six percent;
- the male to female ratio among newborns is roughly 118 to 100, higher than the 116 to 100 ratio of boys to girls in 2000;
- the number of urban residents has increased to just over 49 percent of the nationwide population, up 13 percent.
A rapidly growing aging population, combined with a shrinking low-cost labor pool, is worrying. All last year, reports of a labor shortage in China’s manufacturing belts in the south and east were on the rise. Add to that, the growing urbanization rate –residents moving from the countryside to seek work in the cities – means the country will have to change its economic growth model. It can no longer depend on cheap labor or, ultimately, on being the “factory of the world.”
The highly skewed ratio of men to women brings with it many social implications, particularly for a government that says it’s pursuing a “harmonious society.” Although to be fair, the one-child policy is not the sole reason for the imbalance. In many parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, families have a traditional preference for sons.
Officials in Beijing know all this, and since late 2009 the debate over family planning has been played out openly in the local media. And there have been regular reports about the possibility of loosening the policy or allowing families in certain regions to have two children.
Even so, any changes – if they were to happen – would be over several years. Pilot schemes have been mentioned, in which five or six provinces may allow couples to have two children under certain circumstances. But a nationwide two-child policy was unlikely at the very least until 2015.
At any rate, President Hu Jintao finally waded into the fray two weeks ago when Xinhua reported his comments in a politburo meeting that there would be no change to the one-child policy.