Will China Change its Population Policy?—Commenting on the Sixth National Population Census of China

MENG Jianjun
Former Visiting Fellow, RIETI

China's famous population control policy, called the one-child policy, was introduced in the early 1980s. It is said to be the only economic or social policy that has not changed in China over the past 30 years or so, a country which has seen massive changes, including widespread reforms and open-door policies.

Birth planning policy to control the total population

The results of the sixth national population census (with a base time of midnight on November 1, 2010) were announced on April 28, 2011. The total population of China in 2010 stood at 1,339.72 million people, reflecting an increase of approximately 73.9 million people from the 1,265.83 million people recorded in the fifth national population census in 2000. The annual average rate of increase was 0.57% for the period from 2000 to 2010, down from 1.07% for the period 1990 to 2000.

In fact, a population of 1,339.72 million was lower than expected, and the announcement came as a shock to many experts and policymakers. For instance, the figure was 20.28 million people fewer than 1,360 million people pledged in the 11th five-year plan (2006-2010), and 1.28 million people fewer than the 1,341 million people used as the base figure for the 12th five-year plan (2011-2015).

Looking at the 2010 population by age bracket, children aged 0 through 14 accounted for 16.60% of the total population. The population aged 15 through 59 accounted for 70.14%, while the older population aged 60 and over represented 13.26%. Compared to 2000, the percentage of the population aged 60 and over was up 2.93 percentage points, while the percentage of the population aged 0 through 14 was down 6.29 percentage points. With the young population rapidly decreasing, China must reexamine its long-standing policy of focusing on the overall population and accepting population decline.

Results of gender screening policy

In reality, the one-child policy permits 1.5 children on average for every couple, and has been implemented as such based on a tacit agreement in most regions, with the exception of certain large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. This has come after much trial and error. What this means in practice is that couples are permitted to have a second child after a certain period (roughly four to eight years) provided their first child was female, reflecting the traditional Confucian emphasis on males.

This is, in effect, a gender screening policy, and because of it the male-to-female ratio of children born in 2010 in China was 118.06 boys for every 100 girls. This is far higher than the more typical ratio of 102-107 boys for every 100 girls. In fact, the Chinese figure of 118.06 was not released in the official sixth national population census bulletin, but was mentioned by the Director General of the National Bureau of Statistics at a press conference. This has prompted all kinds of speculation, including suggestions that the figure was released inadvertently and that it raises some unpleasant implications. Certainly, some experts have expressed considerable concern.

Examining an embryo during pregnancy has now become common practice, even in rural areas, making gender selection easier. Consequently, it is assumed that the actual ratio of males is much higher than suggested by the male-to-female ratio of 118.06 boys for every 100 girls. According to the 19th issue of the magazine Outlook Weekly for 2011, the male-to-female ratio of first born babies in the most recent five years is 150.66 boys for every 100 girls in Jianli County, Hubei Province. This gap becomes much wider, to 369 boys for every 100 girls in the case of second born babies. This phenomenon can be seen in all regions except for large cities, and is particularly evident in rural areas.

By any measure, the number of children born in the last decade in China has fallen dramatically, with the total fertility rate (TRF) in 2010 estimated at just 1.63.

Is it possible to change the population policy?

At the same time, the population is also aging quite rapidly. In the sixth national population census, the elderly population?people aged 65 and over, who already number 118.83 million people?accounted for 8.87% of the total population. Although social insurance systems featuring medical services and pensions are quickly being put in place in large cities and the wealthier eastern region, they remain inaccessible in the mid-western regions, particularly rural areas, where economic development has been slower. Meanwhile, although the population bonus in the form of a growing labor force will continue for a little longer, associated with economic development, the percentage of the productive population aged from 15 through 59, which has been making a significant contribution to the nation's economic growth, will gradually decline in the years ahead.

China has been regulating its huge population with a policy focused on the overall number of people and centered on family planning, as a way to alleviate poverty and develop its economy. However, now that China has achieved significant economic growth, does it make sense to maintain a population policy that controls the total number of people? In fact, China's population policy is entering a stage where it must move from controlling the total number of people to correcting the demographic makeup. In recent weeks, following the announcement of the sixth national population census, experts and policymakers have begun to embark on a comprehensive new study along these lines.

June 14, 2011

June 14, 2011