John Garnaut, Beijing
September 13, 2010
CHINA'S sometimes brutal one-child policy is expected to be loosened next year, as policy advisers come to grips with the implications of having one of the world's most rapidly ageing populations.
Chinese experts have told The Age that five provinces are set to relax the policy next year and this trial may spread nationwide by 2013 or 2014, at which point China's working-age population will have stopped growing and the policy's ''demographic dividend'' will have become a headwind.
Already the one-child policy has accelerated the onset and severity of labour shortages in coastal provinces. An associated rise in abortions and even infanticide has twisted the gender balance so that in 2009 there were 119 boys born for every 100 girls.
While no official announcement has been made, some family planning experts expect a pilot policy will soon permit a second birth in families where at least one spouse is an only child.
''Next year they will relax the policy in Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces,'' said He Yafu, an independent demographic expert who has connections with the Family Planning Commission.
''In 2012 I expect it will be extended to Shanghai, Beijing and other places and I am personally optimistic that it will be extended to the whole country in 2013 or 2014.''
While recent media debate has focused on the economic costs of an ageing population, Mr He said other problems in China stemmed from the fact that the policy was ''forced''.
In the early 1980s officials missed their birth targets, a consequence of failing to predict the demographic ''echo'' of a baby boom that followed the famine of the late 1950s. The policy morphed into an instrument of tyranny in many areas.
Graeme Smith, a rural China expert at Sydney's University of Technology, has traced the social and administrative costs of this policy in Anhui and Zhejiang provinces.
''Family planning is a huge drain on resources and it shapes the coercive character of local government even more than land disputes do,'' Dr Smith said. ''An agriculture officer who would be going out recommending new varieties of rice ends up chasing down pregnant women or checking on IUD devices.''
While enforcing the policy had become a drag on government morale, Dr Smith said, it had also become a source of income as women pay heavy fines and bribes to officials for exceeding their birth quotas.
The one-child policy was officially implemented as a 30-year interim measure in 1980, but since then the Family Planning Commission has entrenched itself as one of China's most powerful bureaucracies and implementing the policy has become a leading criterion for official promotions.
Government advisers have told The Age efforts to loosen the policy earlier this year were killed by the commission.
But they also say that gradual reform and ultimately an end to the policy is inevitable.
After 2025 the working-age population is expected to shrink by about 10 million people a year, putting heavy strain on China's social security system and crimping the country's potential GDP growth rate.
By 2050 India is expected to have grown to 1.75 billion people compared with China's 1.44 billion, according to the Population Reference Bureau. China's population is now 1.34 billion and India's 1.19 billion.