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China's One-Child Policy Draws Scrutiny as Concerns of Declining Birth Rate Grow

China's One-Child Policy Draws Scrutiny as Concerns of Declining Birth Rate Grow

April 8, 2011 — Demographers and other researchers in China are calling on government officials to amend, and possibly abandon, the country's one-child policy because economists say that the country's low birth rate could have implications on China's economic growth, the New York Times reports.

Government officials say the policy has averted 400 million births since it was implemented 30 years ago. However, new research indicates that the decline in Chinese fertility rates is not the result of the policy, but is typical of the drop in birth rates that occurs as societies modernize. Wang Feng -- director of the Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, a Chinese division of the U.S.-based Brookings Institution -- and Cai Yong, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, said 45% of the estimated births prevented by the policy would not have occurred anyway because couples limit their family size to adapt to changing economic landscapes. According to government statistics, the current Chinese birth rate is 1.8 children per woman, but demographers say the actual figure is closer to 1.5 children per woman.

Demographers project that with a declining birth rate and a growing elderly population, China's work force likely will begin to shrink within five years, though the drop initially will be slow. Wang said, "Very few people are arguing for [the one-child] policy" because there are "tremendous demographic crises pending, unprecedented in Chinese demography."

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao last month told the national legislature that China would "progressively improve the basic state policy on family planning" -- the second time since October that China's leadership has indicated it may loosen restrictions. Demographers say the most likely change would be to allow couples to have more than one child if the husband or wife was an only child. However, there is increasing concern that even if restrictions are loosened, the one-child policy is so ingrained in the culture that many families do not want more than one child (LaFraniere [1], New York Times, 4/6).

There currently are at least 20 exceptions to the one-child policy (LaFraniere [2], New York Times, 4/6). Wang estimates that 63% of the nation's population is limited to having one child. However, in cities like Shanghai, so many eligible couples decided against having more than one child that government workers made house calls to parents to try to change their minds. Many couples allowed to have more than one child chose not to have a second child.

Scholars also are concerned about the gender disparity in the country. When the one-child policy was implemented, China's birth-ratio standard mirrored that of most societies -- 103 to 107 boys for every 100 girls. The birth-ratio nearly 25 years later had changed to 119 boys for every 100 girls, according to a 2009 British Medical Journal study. In 2005, the country's under-20 male population exceeded that of the same female age group by 32 million -- a disparity that researchers predict likely will grow over the next 20 years and create social instability, according to the Times. Researchers believe the gender disparity is mostly caused by families aborting female fetuses in favor of male children (LaFraniere [1], New York Times, 4/6).