Family planning relaxation has little effect on fertility rates: study

By Sun Wei in London Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-4 19:48:01

Photo: CFP

 A study published last month suggests that 2013 reforms aimed at relaxing China's "one-child policy" are likely to have a limited effect on the country's long-term demographic trends, or solve the problem of China's shrinking workforce.

The report jointly drafted by University of Oxford and Xi'an Jiaotong University, explores what effect the reforms have had on eligible couples.

The new family-planning policies, announced in November 2013, allow couples in which one member is an only child to have two children. It was designed to address issues caused by China's rapidly aging society.

Official estimates suggest that the reforms will lead to an "extra million births a year." However, the new study argues that "even if the official estimates prove to be accurate, this increase will have only a minimal impact on the demographic problems - an aging population and a declining labor force."

"2015 is a critical year for evaluating the effect of the reforms," report co-author and Xi'an Jiaotong University associate professor Jiang Quanbao told the Global Times, adding that the number of couples applying for a second child is not as high as expected.

China Business News reported that there were only 20,000 applicants in East China's Zhejiang Province in 2014, far less than the expected number of 80,000.

In Jiangsu Province, estimates forecast 110, 000 to 180, 000 applicants, but the first five months of 2014 saw only 30, 000 applications, the Modern Express reported. Many other provinces have seen the number of applicants fall far short of expectations.

Jiang said that many eligible couples may not have applied yet. "But it is highly likely that the current application situation reflects the real fertility intention and behavior, and the previous predictions overestimated the birth numbers," he added.

If 2015 does not see a dramatic increase in applications, "further perfection" of the family planning policy would be needed, according to Jiang.

Jiang and his colleagues are collecting data from individuals and administrators in China for further evaluation.

Low fertility trap

After around four decades of the one-child policy, China now faces a different demographic scenario than it did in the 1970s: Its 1.3-billion-strong population is aging rapidly while its demographic dividend dwindles.

The latest study highlights UN figures showing that the number of Chinese citizens aged 65 and above is set to almost triple from 9 percent of the population in 2010 (or 114 million) to 24 percent (331 million) by 2050.

By contrast, the number of citizens aged 20-34 is projected to shrink from 25 percent (333 million) of the population in 2010 to 16 percent (228 million) by 2050.

Though demographic experts have long called for relaxation of the one-child policy, the Chinese government only partially lifted the one-child policy due to their fear that a large "unmet need" for children would lead to a "destabilizing baby boom." However, many people's desire for a second child, in reality, is tempered by growing living and education costs.

"The government should see very low fertility as a possible symptom of broader issues and possibly problems in society," report co-author Stuart Basten, associate professor at the University of Oxford, told the Global Times.

Basten says that he is not overly worried about the problem of an aging society. His study shows that even though the country has had a below-replacement fertility rate for more than 20 years, the total population has still grown by around 200 million over the same period, and is forecast to continue growing for another 15 years.

Basten suggests that people need to think about the "ecology of childbearing" and understand the reasons why people want a small number of children.

"This might require thinking out of the box with regards to issues like improved education policies, family policy arrangements as well as even things like planning policy and tax policy," he said.

If China sees general improvements in the quality of public education, gender equity, and the cost of living, the birth rate would naturally increase, he said.

Yet, the report emphasizes that the significance of the policy changes should not be underestimated, and that they show the Chinese government recognizes a need to "reform and improve" its present family planning policies.

Pro-natalist policy switch

Sweeping away the old family planning policies in the short term is unfeasible, the report said.

The report suggests that the fines imposed on couples who breach the one-child policy, known as "social maintenance fees," form a significant part of local government revenue. It also argues that it is hard to relinquish the old system because of the "policy inertia" associated with the vast family planning bureaucracy.

In addition, within the context of the often "conflictual, decentralized nature of policymaking in China and the potential psychological impact of four decades of proscriptive anti-natalism," the process of constructing a set of policies to tackle some of the real and perceived structural impediments to childbearing could be very challenging.

Jiang says other countries in the Asia Pacific region offer a preview of China's aging society.

"Our neighboring countries, including South Korea, Japan, and many Western countries can be reference points for China. Those countries have observed a decline in fertility, and to such a low level that now they have launched quite a lot of programs to encourage births, but to little effect. I am worried China may follow their path," said Jiang.

Governments in East Asia have found that it is easier to encourage couples to have fewer children than persuading them to have larger families, according to the report.

"A universal two-child policy is expected," Jiang said, adding that a further relaxation of the policy and a switch from anti-natalist to pro-natalist policies is necessary.

Cai Fang, a vice-president of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said in October that China is likely to adopt a universal two-child policy within two years.

Newspaper headline: One-child inertia
Newspaper headline: One-child inertia

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