10 million new babies? China’s hope for boom likely to become policy bust

Eased rule faces social, economic change

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It was announced with great fanfare as a momentous shift in China’s 35-year-old population control policy: The long-awaited “adjustment” in the country’s one-child policy has raised hopes that 10 million “extra” babies will be born in the next five years.

But the early returns suggest the relaxation of the one-child limit may not produce the baby boom that many expect.

“I think 10 million new babies — 2 million per annum — is unlikely,” said Timothy Beardson, a China researcher in Hong Kong.

Mr. Beardson’s latest book, “Stumbling Giant: The Threats to China’s Future,” looks at China’s alarming problems of anemic fertility rates, a workforce that is shrinking by the millions, an elderly population that is growing by the millions, and an eye-popping male-to-female imbalance. Some analysts estimate that China has more than 50 million “excess” males because of abortion and infanticide of girls under the one-child policy.

The new birth policy permits married couples to apply for a second birth permit if either spouse is an only child.

Projections of 2 million extra babies a year for five years are based on the assumption that there is “huge pent-up demand to have more babies,” said Mr. Beardson. However, this remains to be seen, especially since other massive social and economic factors — especially urbanization — already discourage Chinese couples from having children, he said.

One-child policy eased

Although Mr. Beardson is not alone in his skepticism about a surge in births in China, Chinese officials and academics are hopeful that their people will respond to the policy change.

In November, Chinese officials said that to spur economic growth, married couples may apply for a second birth permit if either spouse has no siblings, including “half-blood” siblings. Previously, each spouse needed to be an only child to have a second child.

An estimated 15 million to 20 million people are affected by the policy, and 50 percent to 60 percent have indicated in surveys that they would consider having a second child, China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission said.

With about 2 million extra births a year, in addition to the current 16 million births, the policy should help maintain a reasonable labor force, slow the pace of population aging, boost “sustained and healthy economic development, and creat[e] a sound population environment for the realization of the Chinese dream of rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation,” Wang Pei’an, vice minister of the commission, said in November.

“Loosening of the one-child policy will slow the aging phenomenon and relieve pressure on pensions,” Li Jianmin, a demographer with Nankai University in Tianjin, told China Daily.

Moreover, Chinese officials and academics have estimated that the policy change will boost China’s total fertility rate of 1.6 children per woman to 1.8 children per woman, closer to the 2.1 children per woman that constitutes “replacement-level” fertility.

Baby boom?

But these rosy, baby boom forecasts for China run counter to broader trends that lower the childbearing rate regardless of government rules, Mr. Beardson, founder of Crosby Financial Holdings in Hong Kong, said at a recent event at the Cato Institute in Washington.

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About the Author
Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein

Cheryl Wetzstein covers family and social issues as a national reporter for The Washington Times. She has been a reporter for three decades, working in New York City and Washington, D.C. Since joining The Washington Times in 1985, she has been a features writer, environmental and consumer affairs reporter, and assistant business editor.

Beginning in 1994, Mrs. Wetzstein worked exclusively ...

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