Vietnam has borrowed a lot of policy ideas from the Chinese over the years, including a household registration system (as I discussed a couple of years ago), and a population policy aimed at bringing fertility down and keeping it low. In the early 1990s Vietnam introduced its two-child policy, which was only loosely enforced, but probably helped the birth rate drop from an average of 3.2 children in 1990 to just below replacement level (1.9) in 2000, where it has stayed since, according to the data from the UN Population Division. The result has been a classic demographic dividend, in which the working age population has expanded both numerically and as a fraction of the population, while the older and younger age groups have declined as a percentage of the total. The average person in Vietnam is better off now as a result, albeit still poor by global standards.
This week's Economist has sort of an overview of Vietnam's population trends and policy in light of the country's health ministry circulating a draft revision of its population law.
It is not a moment too soon. A whopping two-thirds of the country’s 90m people are of working age. That gives Vietnam a chance to boom economically over the next three decades. But the “demographic dividend” may then stop abruptly. Fertility rates in some Vietnamese cities have fallen to below the population replacement rate, a trend that could eventually lead to a shortage of workers, as Japan and other rich countries have learnt to their cost. The difference is that Vietnam risks growing old before it grows rich.The Economist seems not to understand the idea that the demographic dividend is a transition period. You cannot keep it up unless you kill off people before they reach old age. You have to use that dividend to figure out ways to keep the economy going. And, by the way, the World Bank data do not suggest that Vietnam is likely to get rich, no matter what its population policy. So, the other troublesome items in the proposed revision of policy are considerably more important:
The new population law, in its current wording, would not help. It proposes to leave the two-child policy in place and ban abortion after 12 weeks, down from the current limit of 22 weeks, except in cases of rape. That may send even more pregnant Vietnamese into shadowy abortion clinics. In September some 17 public-health professionals complained about the proposed law in a letter to the health minister. Such pressure may prompt the government to extend the proposed 12-week limit.
However, the population-control measures being mulled by the ministry contain another troubling feature: a pre-natal focus on “population quality”. That sounds harmless enough, but the underlying idea, according to a foreign health-policy expert in Hanoi, is that health officials could encourage mothers to abort fetuses showing signs of disability.It is likely that couples in Vietnam will not return to the larger families of the past, so changes to the two-child policy are not apt to have much effect. However, putting women's health at risk by limiting the options around abortion--as well as the idea of seeking some sort of "population quality"--are not things that should be promoted by any government.