China considers relaxing one-child policy

Experts warn that three-decade-old rule has caused China's population of 1.3 billion to become dangerously unbalanced

Beijing is considering whether to adopt a two-child policy within the next five years, ending the three-decade-old one-child rule, Chinese media have reported.

Experts have mounted a renewed push for a relaxation of the strict family planning laws at an annual political meeting in the capital, warning that the country's population of 1.3 billion is becoming dangerously unbalanced, with too few adults of working age supporting too many of their elders.

Officials, concerned that hinting at an end to the curbs could lead to a huge rise in the number of births, have quashed previous public discussion of a change.

The one-child policy was adopted in 1979 after China's population surged – in part because Mao Zedong had suggested procreation was a patriotic duty.

Some families – such as ethnic minority households or farmers whose first child is female – are already exempt. The government has been gradually relaxing regulations, for example by allowing two only children to each have two offspring.

Experts in the field believe a uniform two-child rule would be fair, easy to enforce and would help to rebalance the population.

Speaking at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference – an advisory body meeting now in Beijing – Wang Yuqing said officials were studying proposals for a two-child policy and that he believed it should be introduced gradually.

Wang, deputy director of the CPPCC's National Committee of Population, Resources and Environment, told the New Express Daily he believed urban couples whose first child was female might be allowed to have a second child from as early as 2015.

Wang added that cities such as Beijing and Shanghai were already experiencing declining birth rates, in line with the international trend for people to have fewer children as living standards rise.

Pilot projects for a two-child rule have also suggested it would not result in a population boom.

The South China Morning Post said another official had confirmed the government was considering a new exemption for five provinces, which would allow couples to have a second child if one of the parents was an only child.

Li Jichun, the deputy chairman of the Heilongjiang provincial CPPCC, said it had not been decided whether his province would be included.

Official statistics from the government's population agency suggest the fertility rate – the average number of births per woman – is still around 1.8 in China, slightly lower than in the UK but far higher than in Japan or Italy.

Others put the figure far lower, although it is not clear whether they account for births that should be registered but are not.

Ji Baocheng, a member of the rubber-stamp legislature the National People's Congress, said there was a pressing need for a two-child rule because if the policy was not changed in time, the population structure would be severely imbalanced.

According to state news agency Xinhua, over-60s make up more than an eighth of the population and will account for a third within three decades, with their numbers growing to 400 million as the number of younger people falls.

Speaking to New Express Daily, Ji pointed to the burden faced by couples caring for two sets of parents.

"The responsibility will be overwhelming," said Ji, who is also president of Renmin University.

Ye Yanfang, another CPPCC member, said nine out of 10 experts had been pressing for a relaxation of the policy for several years.

But he added: "[The authorities] are still worried that more people will drive up the unemployment rate in the future."

Experts also argue that the one-child policy was never supposed to be a permanent measure, but was meant to bring down population growth to a manageable level.

Tian Xueyuan, a leading member of the team that oversaw the policy's introduction, told the Jinghua Times: "The purpose of the policy was to control birth rate for one generation."

Additional research by Lin Yi


Tania Branigan in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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