Shanghai encourages second child for eligible couples

Move marks dramatic shift away from 30-year priority of keeping population down

Shanghai authorities are urging eligible couples to have a second baby amid concerns about a lack of young workers to support its ageing population.

Family planning officials will make home visits and offer counselling and financial advice in a dramatic shift away from the 30-year priority of simply keeping the population down.

China's one-child policy already includes a series of exemptions – including for ethnic minorities and couples who are both only children. But in Shanghai, such families will now be actively encouraged to use what was previously seen as a privilege.

"We just hope more people can have a second child because for Shanghai, as a city which started family planning quite early, the process of ageing is fast," said Zhang Meixin of the Shanghai population and family planning commission. "If eligible couples have two children, it might help to relieve the pressure."

He said the authorities would not introduce new policies as such and stressed that the nationwide rules still stood. Officials have long feared that China cannot support a rising population – already over 1.3 billion and not expected to peak until it reaches 1.5 billion in about 2033.

The change reflects the differing needs of China's modern cities and its countryside, and growing acknowledgement by officials that birth restrictions are a blunt tool with unwanted side-effects.

Earlier this year the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies warned that China would have more than 438 million over-60s by 2050. Each would have just 1.6 working-age adults to support them, compared with 7.7 in 1975.

The problem is particularly acute in Shanghai. Zhang said its fertility rate was 0.88 in 2008 – far below the national average of around 1.8 – and that which is needed simply to keep the population at the same level.

Fertility rates tend to drop with economic development. China's is still above that of Britain and many European countries.

Xia Xueluan, a professor of sociology at Peking University, said family planning had many advantages, but applauded the new policy. "They should have done this earlier, and it should be promoted all over the country, not just in Shanghai."

But he added that additional incentives – such as child benefit – may be necessary to persuade urbanites to have more babies.

But while rural dwellers in particular chafe at restrictions and heavy-handed enforcement – which has included forced abortions – many in cities are used to the policy and seem largely indifferent, or like the idea of increasing their families but worry about the financial impact.

Resentment is often sparked by the variation in the policing of the rules rather than the law per se – with many complaining that the rich are unaffected by fines that can cripple poorer households.

"I don't want a second child. One is enough, and I hope it is a girl, said expectant mother Yu Nan, 25. "It is very nice to be the only child; you don't need to share or grab things from others. You can have all your parents' attention. My parents have brothers and sisters, but when my grandparents died they quarrelled over the legacy. That was horrible and hurtful. Being the only child, you won't have those problems."

Additional research by Chen Shi

• This article was amended on 25 July 2009. Errors were made during the editing process which meant the original headline, 'Shanghai ends one-child rule', as well as the standfirst and first two paragraphs were incorrect. Shanghai still follows the one-child rule but authorities are now actively encouraging couples exempt from this rule to have a second child. This has been corrected.


Tania Branigan in Shanghai

The GuardianTramp

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