Saturday, January 08, 2005

1.3 billionth baby brings new challenges for China

(The Financial Times) 1.3 billionth baby brings new challenges for China
By Richard McGregor in Shanghai
Published: 8 January 2005

Displayed for the cameras moments after his birth like a sports trophy, Zhang Yichi was hailed this week as the 1.3 billionth member of the world's most populous country, and a symbol of the success of China's controversial one-child policy.

Born at midnight on January 6, baby Zhang was 10 days overdue for his parents, but four years late for the country. Had it not been for China's strict controls limiting most families to a single child, the 1.3 billionth Chinese would have been born in 2000, officials said.

"The occasion should be marked - there has never been such a big population for any country in human history," said Gu Baochang, the deputy-director of the China Family Planning Association. "But the population of China is not just about size - there are many other issues."

China faces the challenge of paying for a rapidly ageing population on a scale unimaginable for most other countries, because of the one-child policy - and the severe sex imbalance driven by families aborting girls in favour of boys in rural areas. There is also the task of managing tens of millions of people off the land and into the cities.

A Chinese phrase - "six pockets, one mouth" - was coined to describe the intense and expensive investment by two sets of grandparents and parents in the education of their single remaining direct offspring.

But the pressure on the generation of single children who will have to support their parents and possibly grandparents is creating a new set of societal pressures.
The import of these issues was mostly lost in the self-congratulation in the official media this week about baby Zhang's birth and how the one-child policy had helped the whole world by keeping down China's population.

"Population growth squeezes resources, which are limited. This not only concerns China, but the entire world," the Xinhua news agency reported.

The one-child policy was introduced after the death of Mao Zedong, who equated a larger population with national power. The population increased by 300m between 1964 and 1974. But the policy has become frayed around the edges in recent years.
China's official minority groups, such as Tibetans, have always been allowed to have two or three children, and farmers in some rural areas have been permitted more than one child in order to conceive a boy.

Elsewhere, the policy has been strictly enforced, including with the use of forced abortions, which has made the policy an issue in the US Congress.
However, due to concerns over the ageing population, the government in the late 1990s began allowing some married couples in cities to have two children, as long as both husband and wife were both single children themselves.

This experiment - started in Shanghai, where the population increase has fallen below replacement rate - has now spread to other cities.
Although this may go some way to alleviating the coming demographic crunch - the proportion of the population over 60 will increase from 11 to 28 per cent by 2040 - fixing China's preference for boys will be harder.

China now has about 120 boys born for every 100 girls, which Mr Gu has described as "the largest, the highest, and the longest" gender imbalance on the globe.
The government this week announced it would criminalise sex-selective abortions - part of a policy to reverse what has become known as the "gendercide" phenomenon by 2010.

The imbalance was starkly confirmed in the 2000 census, which Mr Gu believed marked a turning point on an issue which until then had been kept largely out of public view. "It is a much better situation than a few years ago," he said. "It has now become recognised as a real problem."

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