One-child policy more than just a PR black eye for China


November 19, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Western reaction to China’s loosening its one-child policy is a loud collective snort.
That a country is so intrusive that it can regulate the number of children a family has, seems incredulous to us outsiders.
It’s been the norm in China since the 1970s, when the government feared its population would overwhelm its resources and began a widespread birth control campaign. In 1980, the government mandated Chinese families could have no more than one child, or face severe penalties. Four years later that was eased somewhat, allowing couples with no siblings to have two children, and rural families whose first-born were girls to have another shot at hopefully producing a son.
Today, couples can have two children if only one of the spouses has no siblings.
Demographic experts don’t expect a baby boom from the new policy.
Raising a child in urban China is expensive, they say, and competition for good schools is fierce.
Suppressing reproduction rates in China certainly worked  — perhaps too well. Today, its birth rate is 1.56 per person, which equates to a negative 3.4 percent growth rate.
The United States, in comparison, maintains a 2.08 fertility rate. Coupled with immigration, it averages a population growth rate of 30 percent. The birth rate needed to hold a population steady is 2.6.
While the median age — the midpoint — is currently about the same, 34-36 years old, between China and the United States, by the year 2050 China’s population will have aged significantly. The median age then is expected to be 48.7 years old compared to 40 years old for the United States.
Because it’s so expensive to live in China’s metropolitan areas, it’s the cities that face the most hurt. Shanghai, population 23 million, expects more than one-third of its population to be 60 and older by 2020. The most obvious complication from this projection is the large number of pensioners with no one coming down the pike to support them.
The one-child policy is coming to haunt the government. China tradition has its children, especially sons, take care of their elders. In most families that means one child is now responsible for the welfare of his parents and his grandparents. China refers to this as the “4-2-1 phenomenon.”
In most Western countries there is something akin to our Social Security system giving the elderly a modest pension. It’s only been since 2000 that China has set up a national pension fund. To date, only a fraction of its elderly qualify for the system, which in itself is grossly underfunded by the government.

THE SOCIAL stigma of China’s tight-fisted government is the least of its challenges. Unless substantive changes occur, it will struggle mightily under its own weight.
— Susan Lynn