China offers hope of easing one-child policy

BEIJING Sun Sep 26, 2010 1:03am EDT

BEIJING (Reuters) - China marked the 30th anniversary of its controversial one-child policy with talk of relaxing rules, at least in some provinces, that have reined in population growth but caused heartache for millions of couples.

With a population expected to peak at 1.65 billion in 2033, China has been cautious about dropping an unpopular policy that was originally supposed to last one generation.

Central planners say the one-child policy has spared China from the pressures of hundreds of millions of additional people that would have strained scarce water and food resources as well as the nation's ability to educate and employ them.

Critics cite forced abortions and sterilizations, punitive enforcement and a widening gender gap as the unwelcome legacy. Millions of baby girls are believed to have been aborted in a country which traditionally favors male heirs.

China already allows a number of exceptions to the policy, including allowing rural families a second child if the first is a girl, and permitting couples in some cities a second child if both parents had no siblings.

"If population control reaches the expected goal, Guangdong is likely to let couples in which one of the two is an only child to have a second child after the Twelfth Five-Year plan," Zhang Feng, director of Guangdong Population and Family Planning Commission, told the Southern Metropolis Daily on Friday.

Near Hong Kong, Guangdong is home to about 100 million people and the Twelfth Five-Year plan runs through 2015. After 2030, Zhang said, any Guangdong couple could have two children.

As China's population ages and wages slowly rise, the government is becoming more concerned about who will take care of the elderly than about a destabilizing surge of young people unable to find jobs.

The rising cost of housing and education leaves many urban couples uninterested in the big families of their ancestors, but many would still like a second child.

"Should there be a difference between giving birth to a first child and the second one? If there is, then are our two children unequal?" asked Yang Zhizhu, 44, a former law professor at the China Youth University for Political Sciences, who was fired after his wife had a second daughter last year.

"If it is legal to have a first child, then it shouldn't be illegal to have a second one, otherwise it would be a kind of discrimination within our family."

Earlier this year, Caijing Magazine reported on a pilot program in five provinces next year to allow families in which one of the couple was an only child to have a second child.

Experts worry that Beijing is unprepared for the sheer speed at which China will age. The United Nations predicts China's working-age population will peak in 2015 and plunge by 23 percent by 2050.

By then, there will be 438 million Chinese aged 60 or over, or 61 for every 100 adults of working age, up from just 16 in 2005, according to government figures.

The traditional Chinese preference for boys means that girls are more likely to be aborted or abandoned, meaning that 24 million Chinese men may find themselves unable to marry by 2020, feeding a growing problem of wife- and child-trafficking.

In 2009, there were 119.45 male newborns for every 100 female births, while the natural ratio should be about 105 males per 100 females at birth.

(Additional reporting by Huang Yan and Mark Chisholm; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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