This week's Economist highlights the demography of China. The UN's latest population projections have caught everyone's attention and since China is still the world's most populous nation (and will be for at least a few more years) its demographic situation is crucially important to the world. The projections suggest that China is rapidly aging as a consequence of several decades of very low fertility. Like Japan, China has never shown any interest in accommodating immigrants, so any "reversal" of societal aging would require a rise in the birth rate. The Economist wonders if the government will lift the penalties for having more than one child.
The census results are likely to intensify debate in China between the powerful population-control bureaucracy and an increasingly vocal group of academic demographers calling for a relaxation of the one-child policy.
As I have noted in Chapter 6, and many others have said as well, the evidence in China is that fertility was dropping even before implementation of the one-child policy, and neighboring countries, especially culturally similar Taiwan, have achieved very low fertility without a Draconian on-child policy. It seems likely that the single most important reason for China to maintain the one-child policy is politics:
Joan Kaufman of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University [argues that] official support for the policy is only partly to do with its perceived merits: it is also the product of resistance by China’s family-planning bureaucracy. This has massive institutional clout (and local governments have a vested interest in the fines collected from violators). “The one-child policy is their raison d’être,” says Ms Kaufman.It seems unlikely to me that we will see any real change in China's birthrate in the near future, especially since China's population is still growing, even if only slightly. As numerous commentators have said, China seems not only destined, but content, to "grow old before it grows rich."
There are signs that the academics are succeeding in their campaign to make the population debate less politicised and more evidence-based. Mr Ma of the National Statistics Bureau spoke not only of adhering to the family-planning policy, but also of “cautiously and gradually improving the policy to promote more balanced population growth in the country”. In his comments on the census, President Hu Jintao included a vague hint that change could be in the offing. China would maintain a low birth rate, he said. But it would also “stick to and improve” its current family-planning policy. That hardly seems a nod to a free-for-all. But perhaps a “two-for-all” may not be out of the question.