President Hu Jintao called on officials to formulate strategies to cope with more retirees as the young labor pool shrinks, creating a “double squeeze.’’
China will keep birth limit policy, but hints of change are seen
BEIJING — China will maintain the strict family planning policy it imposed a generation ago to keep the birth rate low and the economy growing, President Hu Jintao said in remarks before new census numbers are released.
But demographers who have been advocating for changes to the country’s so-called one-child policy responded with counterintuitive optimism, suggesting that Hu’s decision to publicly address family planning meant there was fresh debate among the leadership about how to best manage it.
There has been growing speculation among Chinese media, specialists, and ordinary people about whether the government would soon relax the policy — introduced in 1980 as a temporary measure to curb surging population growth — and allow more people to have two children. Currently, most urban couples are limited to one child and rural families to two.
That anticipation has grown despite the fact that Hu’s comments, made at a Communist Party meeting of top leaders convened to discuss population issues, mirrored other official remarks in recent months.
Wang Feng, a population specialist and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, called the timing of the comments ahead of the census highly significant.
“I take this as an important signal that the debate has reached a high level and that changes will be on the way,’’ he said.
Data on the first census in 10 years will be released publicly today. Preliminary numbers based on a sample survey showed China had 1.34 billion people last year and growth had slowed to its lowest rate in decades.
China has the world’s largest population and credits its family planning limits with preventing 400 million additional births and helping break a traditional preference for large families that had perpetuated poverty. But there are concerns about the policy’s problematic side effects, such as selective abortions of girls and a rapidly aging population.
The Xinhua News Agency said Hu told other top communist leaders Tuesday that the country would stick to its basic family planning policy and continue to maintain a low birth rate.
Xinhua said Hu briefly touched on concerns about population structure and the growing number of aging people, saying that social security and services for the elderly should be improved.
He also called on officials to formulate strategies to cope with more retirees.
But demographers like Wang said that state help will not be enough to support ballooning numbers of retirees as the young labor pool shrinks. Society will face a “double squeeze,’’ with more elder benefit payments being paid out and a smaller and smaller share of the population contributing to economic growth, he said.
The average number of children a Chinese woman will have in her lifetime — the fertility rate — is currently around 1.6, well below the replacement level of 2.1 that would hold a population steady. This means that each age group is smaller than the one older than it — a trend that has proved hard to reverse in other societies.
The male-female ratio at birth in China is about 119 males to 100 females, with the gap as high as 130 males for every 100 females in some provinces. In industrialized countries, the ratio is 107 to 100.
China’s population is still growing but its growth rate has been contracting since 1987 and the Census Bureau has projected it will peak at slightly less than 1.4 billion in 2026, with India overtaking China as the world’s most populous nation in 2025.