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CHINA: Chinese Question Government’s One-Child Policy

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jul 6 2009 (IPS) - When China’s population control was imposed in 1980, it was meant to be a temporary measure which the government promised to phase out in three decades. It was intended to halt the baby boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

But as China is preparing to mark the 30th anniversary of its "one-child" policy next year, indications are that the policy would remain in place despite mounting opposition from the general public and experts who question its success.

During the annual session of the National Parliament in March, a senior legislator tabled a proposal for further tightening of the family planning rules, arguing that many of China’s current problems stemmed from lapses in implementing the policy.

The world’s most populous country is plagued by the depletion of resources amid an oversupply of labour, all of which threaten a serious unemployment crisis, he alleged.

"Without solving China’s population problem, we will never be able to measure our country power against that of European countries and the United States," Cheng Enfu, dean of the Marxist Studies Institute with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said during the plenary discussions of the parliament. "Our gross domestic product and our living standards will always lag behind those countries".

Cheng called for a halt to the relaxation of the "one child" policy, predicting that China will not be able to progress if it wavers on population control.

While experts and legislators have been debating the pros and cons of the policy in recent years, Cheng’s analysis directly equated China’s population control to the country’s economic success.

Previous debates have tended to focus on the quality of the nation, highlighting the difficulties of feeding and educating China’s 1.3 billion people.

"Less is better" has long been a widely used slogan by population control officials during their campaigns to raise awareness across the country.

Cheng’s arguments touched a nerve with an increasingly assertive Chinese public because it suggested that Beijing was preparing to hold onto its policy even after its originally planned expiration date in 2010.

According to an internet poll conducted among 130,000 people, and published by the Southern Weekend newspaper, 67.5 percent opposed further measures to tighten family planning laws.

"China is not the country with the most serious population problems in the world but its population control is the most draconian," said one commentator. "Even if we only consider Asia, there are at least three counters with bigger population density than China – Japan, South Korea and Israel. In Europe, one third of the countries are more densely populated than China. Are more strict measures really needed?"

In recent years, the success of China’s family planning measures has become a matter of much debate. Government officials credit the "one-child" policy with preventing some 350 million births over 30 years and reducing the Chinese birthrate to 1.7 children per woman from more than six in the 1960s.

Defenders of the policy evoke images of the early 1970s when the economy was struggling to feed a rapidly expanding population.

Arguably, the "one-child" policy is the policy with the biggest public impact ever rolled out by the communist Chinese leaders. But when it was imposed in 1980 it was not even submitted for endorsement by the national parliament.

Instead, the decision for its launch was announced in a public letter issued by the Central Committee of the Communist party in September 1980, which clearly stated that the measures would be in place for 30 years, by which time it said "population pressure would have been alleviated".

From the moment of its inception, the policy has met with fierce and often violent opposition from peasants. In 1984, the rules were amended to permit two children if the first was a girl or handicapped. Ethnic minorities were also allowed two children. But in the big cities, families were restricted to just one child and subjected to fines if the rule was violated.

In the countryside, protests against forced abortions and excessively high fines routinely flared up. One of the biggest recent protests happened last year in Guangxi province where hundreds of farmers rioted, accusing officials of charging five times the officially mandated amount for breaching the policy.

Since China entered the new millennium, population experts have become bolder in questioning the wisdom of implementing stringent population controls. They point out an array of social problems that have accompanied its implementation.

China, which last year replaced Germany as the world’s third largest economy, is aging so rapidly that by 2050, there could be two working people for every elderly, compared with 13 to one now. The problem of shrinking workforce is compounded by the lack of a full-fledged social safety net, which places the responsibility of the ageing population on a dwindling number of children.

Draconian restrictions on childbirth are being blamed also for a gender imbalance that China might have to endure for decades. In Chinese society, where Confucian tradition places a strong emphasis on male heirs, there are now millions of more boys than girls.

In most countries, males slightly outnumber females – between 103 and 107 male births for every 100 female births. But in China there are now 120 male to 100 female births.

Population controls have also spurred a grim trade in stolen children, which the government is struggling to eliminate by carrying out periodic crackdowns.

The Sichuan earthquake was a stark reminder of the price paid by parents who lose their only child. Thousands of children perished in the tremor, leaving behind grieving parents.

"Numbers are not really the biggest problem with the existing population control policy," Ji Baocheng, a population expert. "Family planning laws are supposed to be conducive to family harmony but if we continue doing things as we did in the 1980s, achieving harmony would be very difficult".

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