24 de março de 2014

What will happen if China adopts a two-child policy?

China is edging closer to allowing all citizens to have two children instead of one. Is it too little, too late?
FEARS of a population explosion were rife in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1960s and 1970s, the global population was growing at an annual rate of 2 per cent, enough to double the number of people on the planet every 30 years or so.
It was widely believed that this "population bomb", a product of drastically reduced mortality rates and the absence of a corresponding decline in the birth rate, would eventually lead to an overcrowded planet, with resources outstripped and humanity doomed.
China's population had become the largest in the world and among the fastest growing. Its growth rate averaged above 2.5 per cent in the 1960s. The 1970s saw a social shift to later marriage, longer birth intervals and fewer births. Within one decade, the population growth rate had more than halved, from 2.58 per cent in 1970 to 1.16 per cent in 1979.
Yet those in power feared there would be a continued population expansion due to a high proportion of young people. In 1982, over a third of citizens were aged under 15 years, and only 6.3 per cent were over 60. With a political goal to raise standards of living, China decided to act.
Its infamous one-child policy was formally announced in September 1980. After more than 30 years of modifications and exemptions, over 60 per cent of all couples in China are still subject to the rule. Exemptions cover groups such as ethnic minorities, rural families with only a daughter and newly married couples who have no siblings. The latest relaxation in November 2013 will allow couples in which one partner is an only child to have two children, paving the way for the eventual abolishment of the one-child rule. And earlier this month, Ma Xu, head of research at China's national health and family planning commission, said it was time for a full study of the impact of a universal two-child rule.
The one-child policy was never popular and always controversial. It will go down in history as a textbook example of bad science combined with bad politics. While it was true that reducing birth rate was the only means to curtail population growth, the real cause of growth was not an increase in birth rate, but rather the mortality rate falling before a natural decline in fertility. One thing history has taught us is that populations and societies shift to fewer births, once they see infant mortality rates decline. It turns out that the unprecedented global population growth in the second half of the 20th century was only a chapter in human history, no more.
And while contraception availability is crucial in meeting the needs of birth control, extreme policies to limit the number of children is not. There were 16 countries in the world with a population of a million or more and a growth rate similar to China's in 1970. Their combined average birth rate declinedfrom 35.6 per thousand in 1970 to 22 per thousand in 1998. In China, it dropped from 33.4 to 15.6 per thousand.
It is tempting to attribute the larger decline in China to its one-child policy, as the government claims. But during the first decade of the policy, in the 1980s, the fertility rate hardly changed at all. It was only after China's economic boom, since the early 1990s, that its fertility level dropped further.
Its people have already suffered a heavy toll. The number of abortions shot up from 8.69 million in 1981 to a staggering 14.37 million in 1983. Female sterilisation operations increasedeven more in that period: from 1.59 million to 16.39 million. China now has 150 million single-child families – that is one in every three households. More than a million Chinese families have become childless following the death of their only child.
A generation ago, an implicit promise was that the sacrifice asked of the population would be compensated by government-sponsored old-age support programmes. That is looking increasingly unlikely. The burden of a rapidly growing older population is great. Those aged 60 and over now comprise 15 per cent of the total, and number more than 200 million.
Modern China is entirely different economically, socially and demographically compared with over 30 years ago. In 1980, it was not only the largest country in the world in terms of population, but also among the poorest. Its per capita income stood at only $253 in terms of equivalent spending power in that year, less than 1/50th of the US. Today, more than two decades of spectacular economic boom have propelled it towards its current place as the second largest economy in the world, with per capita income rising to the equivalent of $9000, about 1/6th of the US.
Over 50 per cent of all Chinese people now live in urban areas, compared with about 20 per cent in 1980. Education levels have shot up. The proportion of young women aged 25 to 29 who are unmarried has quadrupled to 22 per cent. Fertility has been below the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple for over two decades, and is now at about 1.5. In the biggest city Shanghai, the last census put fertility at only 0.7.
Those aged 15 and under now comprise 14 per cent of the population, less than for those aged 60 and over. As in much of the world, young people in China do not want to have many children. The latest surveys report that only 60 per cent of those who qualify to have two children under existing exemptions have actually expressed an interest in doing so.
What all this points to is that China is highly unlikely to become a two-child society, even after the removal of the one-child policy for all its citizens. The policy is not a light switch. Turning it on did not prevent as many births as claimed, and turning it off will not bring a baby boom.
This article appeared in print under the headline "China's baby steps"
Wang Feng is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research body in Washington DC

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