Too Late To Reverse China's One-Child Policy?

In recent years, fears have grown that China may lose its demographic advantage as the population bulge shifts inexorably towards the aged after three decades of its draconian one-child policy, leaving the country with what is expected to be a static working-age population supporting a vast elderly cohort by 2040.

According to government estimates, those aged 60 or more will reach 216 million in China by 2015, accounting for 16.7 percent of the population. That has raised questions whether it is time to reverse the policy, which according to official figures has kept an astonishing 300 million children - a population the size of the entire Eurozone - from being born since it was instituted in 1979.

It is unlikely that the government will revoke the policy, planners say, although Beijing in recent years has allowed some regions to relax controls. In some cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, local governments now allow couples two children if both the husband and wife are the only children of their parents, and in fact the policy has never really effectively been carried out in the countryside, particularly in remote rural areas. It is estimated that the policy applied to 35.9 percent of the population.

In cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, however, the total fertility ratio, the number of children born to mothers of child-bearing age, has fallen to well below replacement levels, as it has in many countries across Asia including Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, presenting these countries with a quandary - eventually not enough working-age individuals to support the aged.

Many demographers say concerns over China losing its demographic dividend are best read as an early warning, if not an exaggeration, and that Beijing could reconsider the policy at any time the situation grows more serious. But could China actually reverse it? The experience of many nations across Asia suggests it may not be that easy, and that the pressures of urbanization and modernization may prove more powerful than the urge to procreate. Thus perhaps China should regard Singapore as its laboratory model, as it has in a variety of other social experiments that have not worked out by any means.

Singapore, of course, is not alone, although it has been perhaps most assertive in attempting social engineering, after decades in which former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought equally aggressively to limit the island republic's population with the so-called "Stop at two" campaign, including tax and other disincentives to keep the population in check. The South Korean government has in vain offered cash gifts and incentive to families to have more babies. Russia is giving away free refrigerators and other gifts to families. In Japan in 2012, the toiletries company Unicharm said sales of its adult diapers slightly surpassed baby diapers for the first time since the company moved into the elderly market in 1987.

In most of these countries, the birth rate has continued far below replacement level. It is in fact questionable whether former Premier Lee's disincentives played as much a part in cutting the total fertility rate in the first place as simple urbanization did. Singapore planners say the country will experience an unprecedented age shift between now and 2030, with the population starting to decline in 2025 if the country doesn't take in new immigrants. It is a decline the government has been working to reverse for decades, and intensively since 2001, according to a white paper published in January.

Many analysts believe child-friendly or family-friendly policies are the answer. But to seek to stimulate population, Singapore introduced a Marriage & Parenthood Package in 2001 and enhanced it in 2004 and 2008. The package is being enhanced in 2013 to enable couples to get housing faster and more easily so that they can marry and start families. The government will provide support for conception and delivery costs, further defray child-raising costs including healthcare, and "enhance work-life measures to help working couples balance work and family commitments. It is also signaling fathers to play a bigger role through paternity and shared parental leave.

But that may not work with well-to-do couples who simply no longer want to spend the time raising babies when they can be taking holidays abroad and enjoying life. Accordingly, Singapore has had to push through equally aggressive immigration policies that have led to widespread antagonism on the part of native Singaporeans.

"We do not expect our total fertility rate to improve to the replacement rate of 2.1 in the short term?To stop our citizen population from shrinking, we will take in between 15,000 and 25,000 new citizens each year," the paper notes. By 2030, Singapore's citizen population is projected to be between 3.6 and 3.8 million by 2030. With a permanent resident population of 500,000 to 600,000 million, this gives a resident population between 4.2 and 4.4 million in 2030, depending whether the country can actually lift its birth rate. That is an iffy question at best.

If urbanization plays a major role in total fertility rates, what is next for China, which under the incoming Prime Minister Le Keqiang now has made rapid urbanization a goal? According to China's sixth census in 2010, almost 50 percent of the country's 1.3 billion population dwelled officially in cities. According to the CIA World Factbook, US urbanization was 82 percent in 2010, 80 percent in the United Kingdom, 74 percent in Germany and 67 percent in Japan.

In fact, China's 49.68 percent urbanization is somewhat deceptive. Some 650 million are city dwellers and at least 200 million are rural migrant workers and their families who are not legally regarded as urban residents in the country's rigid hukou or household registration system. To speed up urbanization in the proper sense, China will also turn more of its rural population into urban citizens. As big cities in the country have become saturated, China must focus on developing small and medium sized cities or towns, or pursue so-called "local urbanization - letting villages or small towns grow into cities. In this regard, China has had some success. Many villages and small town in the Pearl River and Yangtze River Deltas have grown into cities of considerable size in the past three decades.

Thus the pace of urbanization is picking up. China may have to resort to social engineering on a massive scale at some point in the next half century to keep its population growing. Already, tens of thousands of those new immigrant Singaporeans are from China itself. China may need them to move home.