Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 17 News List

China's gray revolution

As its population ages rapidly, Shanghai may become a city of Zimmer frames within 30 years and could soon face manpower shortages

By Howard French  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SHANGHAI

The sheer magnitude of the aging phenomenon has Chinese officials and academics grasping for answers, but almost everyone agrees that there are no easy fixes. Population experts here speak of "patching one hole and exploding another."

China has a wide range of retirement ages, generally from 50 to 60. Raising the retirement age would relieve pressures on the pension system but make it harder for young people to find jobs. And it would be resented by many elderly people, most of whom have missed out on China's economic boom.

Lifting restrictions on internal migration raises the unwelcome prospect of a mass migration, while abandoning the one-child policy would be politically unpalatable.

The government has already tinkered with the policy. It now allows husbands and wives who were their parents' only children to have a second child, for example, and has eliminated a four-year waiting period between births for those eligible to have a second child.

But Chinese demographic experts say the leadership is unlikely to abolish the one-child rule, because it is reluctant to admit that one of its signature policies was in any way a failure particularly in view of the disastrous population boom encouraged by Mao in the 1950s.

Moreover, lifting child-bearing restrictions might not help. Poorer people in the interior might have more children, but the rising middle class probably will not, experts say.

"More births would only change the structure of the population and prolong the aging process of the society as a whole, said Ren Yuan, a professor at the Population Research Center of Fudan University in Shanghai. But it has nothing to do with the number of old people. The scale of this large group has already become a reality. The beds you've got to add in nursing homes, the labor you need to take care of the old, is a reality than can't be changed."

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