Flagship family planning policy county ages in fast forward

By Southern Weekly - Agencies Source:Global Times Published: 2014-12-10 19:43:01

Rudong, a county repeatedly praised by the central government for its enforcement of the country's family planning policy, is now reaping the whirlwind as it faces a "super-aged" population. With a declining, aging population, the coastal county in Jiangsu Province suffers from labor and pension fund shortages, with the same family planning policy enforcers who coerced couples into sterilization and abortion now encouraging families to have second children, to little effect.

Two senior citizens rest in a park in Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. Photo: CFP

The sense of solitude and loss among residents of one coastal county in East China's Jiangsu Province is growing, with fewer and fewer young faces around.

Rudong county, with 20 percent of its population above 65 years old, has become one of the first Chinese counties to be classified as "super-elderly," a designation given to areas whose over-65 population exceeds 20 percent of the total population.

The county was a pioneer in enforcing family planning policy. Today, as it ages rapidly, it is reaping the fruits of those achievements. The officials who were so proud of their achievements in curbing the county's population have now found themselves in a struggle to encourage young couples to have a second child and to maximize the health and functional capacity of older people.

Lin Jun, a 30-year-old man living in a township in Rudong, likes to go to the movies. But it was only on a visit to the neighboring county of Rugao that he noticed a difference: Most of the audience members were younger than him, and the markets there were still noisy at midnight. In Rudong, most theater-goers are older than him, and the streets are quiet even during the daytime.

A total of 28 percent of this county's population, or close to 300,000 people are 60 or older. It has entered this stage of its demographic development 20 years earlier than other parts of the country, leading some experts to view Rudong as a preview of China's next two decades.

Pioneering enforcer 

Apart from longer life expectancy and declining fertility rates, the earlier and strict enforcement of family planning policy is regarded as the major cause of the county's "super aging."

Sang Shengfu, 58, has been a family planning policy worker for 28 years in Rudong, a county administered by the nearby city of Nantong. He is proud while recalling the awards the county received for his and his colleagues' work.

Three decades ago, Rudong was famous for two things: heavy cotton yield and excellent enforcement of family planning policy. While China rolled the policy out nationwide in 1980s, Nantong, as one of several cities pioneering the regulations, had already had the policy in place for roughly 10 years.

In a stunning achievement, Rudong managed to reduce its population growth rate to 0.5 percent from 2 percent within three years. In 1986, Rudong was singled out by the State Council for its outstanding implementation of family planning policy.

According to conservative official projections, the county has helped prevent half a million births in the past four decades.

Sang says that the plaudits did not come easily. His job involved escorting couples to sterilization surgeries after their one allotted birth, and tracking down women pregnant with extra babies and forcing them to induce labor early.

To ensure the induction went smoothly, family planning staff accompanied the woman to the hospital and stayed with her until the operation was finished.

"I'm a man, but I still had to sleep in the same room with the woman," Sang told the Southern Weekly.

Usually in one small room, the pregnant woman and her relatives slept on one side, while Sang and his colleagues slept on the other. "One time, I had to stay an entire week," Sang said.

During his time with the involved family, Sang's main job was to persuade the family to accept the induction.

Shi Dejun, a medical worker in a school in Rudong, was in charge of the faculty's birth control. Each month he updated a table with the female workers' marriage and birth status. He was always on top of who had obtained their only-child certificate and who needed to go for ligation. 

In addition to distributing birth control medicine, Sang also did regular checks on women in the township he lived. "We took a small scanner and checked women who were using vaginal birth control rings, twice a year, in spring and autumn," Sang said.

The machine showed them which women had removed the rings secretly and which rings had shifted out of place, which might lead to malfunction.

Pension fund pressure

Due to frequent confrontations with local families, family planning enforcers are sometimes disdained by the public. But for many years Sang remained convinced that the one-child policy had helped contribute to the well-being of the whole country.

However, he has had doubts in recent years. He regrets having been so obedient, and not having had a second child. Living with his only child and only grandson, Sang says he sometimes wishes for a bigger family. "Two children would be better. Apart from loneliness, the [monetary] burden is a big concern," he lamented. "When they [his son and daughter in law] get to be my age, the economic and labor burden on the grandson when we get sick will be heavy."

Even more upsetting, his son has rejected his suggestion to have a second child, even though policy now allows it. With a monthly income of about 3,000 yuan ($486), his son and his daughter-in-law don't feel they can afford another child.

Another big reason for the county's aging has been the outflow of young people. Most children left the county and settled in other cities after college graduation. Xu Jinzhang, deputy director of the county's human resources and social security bureau, describing the outflow, says that all the adult children in the village of his birthplace have left the county to study or work, leaving their parents and grandparents behind.

"In 30 or 40 years, when these elderly residents pass away, the village will be totally deserted," Xu told China Comment, a biweekly magazine run by Xinhua News Agency.

The pressure of taking care of the elderly is palpable in Rudong.

Liu Xinyu, 20, was admitted last year to a college in the provincial capital Nanjing, about 200 kilometers away. He is from a big family, with parents, grandparents and great-grand parents. As the family's only child, he says "filial piety" will be his primary requirement for his future girlfriend.

The county's student pool is also shrinking. Three local high schools stopped recruiting new students this year. Xu Jinzhang also found that when they introduced investment and factories to the county, it is hard for them to find employees.

Shen Xiaojun, the county's pension fund bureau director, is more worried by an imminent pension fund shortage. The ratio of pension fund payers to pension fund recipients in Rudong is 2.74:1, much lower than the suggested ratio of 4:1.

"As the aging accelerates and the need for pension payments rises, the burden on companies and insurance personnel will be greater," Shen was quoted as saying by China Comment.

Chen Jianhua, president of the county's advisory body, has already put the aging problem on his political agenda. "We've felt the worries and panic. The pace of aging is so fast," Chen said. Who will do the farmers' job is no longer his concern. He said the urgent issue is "when the relatives get older, what should we do?"

Boosting births

Chen Youhua, a demography professor at Nanjing University who hails from Rudong, said that Rudong's future lies in increasing its population. He suggested it encourage couples to have a second child.

"With too many children, the future is risky. But with too few children, there's no future at all," Chen said.

Chen said studies have shown that in "super-aged" societies, economies stagnate and scientific innovation slows, Southern Weekly reported.

However, the willingness among local couples to have a second child is low. According to a survey conducted by the county's family planning authorities, among the 28,000 couples who are allowed to have a second child, only 11.6 percent said they will do so.

The high cost of raising a child is the major obstacle. Sang Shengfu, who works approving applications for second children, drafted a proposal to encourage couples to have a second child, including awarding them 5,000 yuan, reimbursing the cost of births, and waiving the kindergarten fees.

Pan Jinhuan, a retired county legislator, has been studying the aging problem. He thinks the best course of action is for Rudong to hang onto its young people before they leave for other cities.

His research has shown that in the past decade, nearly 60,000 high-school graduates were admitted by higher learning institutes outside Rudong, but fewer than 20,000 returned to the county. He has advised the government to develop vocational education.

"Train more industrial and technical talent, help them work and stay in the county, which would not only improve investment environment but also relieve the problems caused by aging," Pan told the Southern Weekly.

Some have also suggested developing community-based services for the aged, but the county does not have the money to cover such services. Nursing homes in the county only have 7,456 beds, far less than current demand.

Families who challenged the family planning policy and had a second child are now the envy of their neighbors in Rudong. Shi Dejun's cousin is one of them. The family's housewife disappeared years ago for a period of time, coming back with a baby boy, their second child. They paid a 3,000 yuan fine for breaking the law at the time. But now Sang and Shi both believe the cost was worth it.

The family's elder child manages a cosmetics store in the county and the "extra" baby, now a military officer in Beijing, sends money back to his parents every month.

Sang thinks the State should allocate funding to Rudong in recognition of its contribution to birth control.

"The financial difficulty in other areas which had poorer enforcement of the policy are not as serious as ours," Sang said.

Southern Weekly - Agencies

Newspaper headline: An old problem

Posted in: In-Depth

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