Tue, Feb 01, 2005 - Page 5 News List

China considers making changes to one-child policy

DEMOGRAPHIC SHIFT China was aiming to limit population growth, but is now facing the prospect of an aging population, and few daughters born


For farming families in the lush mountains of coastal Fujian province, the famous crop is oolong tea and the favorite source of labor is sons. The leafy bushes of tea fill the hillsides the same way young boys fill the village streets.

There is such a glut of boys here -- roughly 134 are born for every 100 girls -- that the imbalance has forced an unlikely response from the Chinese government. To persuade more families to have girls, it has decided in some cases to pay families that already have daughters.

The Communist Party is often vilified for its so-called one-child policy. The government credits the policy for sharply slowing China's population growth, but critics say it is a major reason many families now use prenatal scans and selective abortions to make certain that the single child they are permitted is a boy.

Today, China has one of the world's worst cases of "missing" girls. Until recent years, the government largely ignored or denied the problem. Last March, President Hu Jintao declared it must be solved by 2010. Government officials now have declared that sex-selective abortions will become a criminal offense. Such abortions were already banned, but doctors often accepted bribes from parents who wanted to guarantee a boy.

Government officials are hardly backing away from population control. But the government is examining various possible changes. Last year, the State Council, China's Cabinet, appointed a research group of 250 demographers and other experts to examine issues like imbalance between the sexes, dropping fertility rates and ways to prepare for China's rapidly aging population. It may also address whether and when China should move to a nationwide two-child policy to prevent a looming baby bust.

Hao Linna, spokeswoman for the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said, "We need to study how to shift, in what form and what method."

Yet government officials agree that reversing the birth imbalance between boys and girls cannot be postponed. Experts debate to what extent China's population policy should be blamed for the problem, noting that the problem predates the one-child policy. Other Asian countries like India and South Korea without such policies also have lopsided birth rates. But statistics show that China's imbalance has widened since population controls began in the late 1970s.

In early January, the government announced that the nationwide ratio had reached 119 boys for every 100 girls. Studies show that the average rate for the rest of the world is about 105 boys for every 100 girls. Demographers predict that in a few decades China could have up to 40 million bachelors unable to find mates.

On a recent afternoon here in southeastern China, hundreds of students in the dirt courtyard of Lanxi Middle School held a parade rehearsal. About 60 percent of students in the higher grades are male. The marchers, mostly boys, waved flags and kicked dust in the air beside a billboard promoting the latest propaganda campaign: Respect Girls.

China's population policy long ago ceased to be a true one-child rule. In broad terms, urban families, with exceptions, are usually limited to one child, while rural families are allowed a second child if the first is a girl. Minority families, meanwhile, are sometimes allowed three or more children to keep their populations from declining.

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