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China Fears a Baby Bust

After 25 years of the one-child policy, the nation risks producing too few children. But many parents have decided one is enough.

December 06, 2004|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

SHANGHAI — Zhang Xiaofeng, a 28-year-old who runs a steel business here, doesn't need anyone to tell him about the joys of fatherhood. He eagerly pulls out his wallet and displays pictures of his 2-year-old son, Chengqi, with his mother's big, round eyes.

Zhang often passes up nights out with his buddies so he can race home to play with Chengqi.

"I bathed him, fed him and changed his diapers. I did all those things," he says proudly.

But ask Zhang whether he and his wife want another child, and his jaw tightens. Raising another child would be tiring, time-consuming and expensive, Zhang protests.

He sums it up: "One is enough."

For the last quarter-century, China's one-child decree has been criticized by citizens and outsiders alike as draconian. But as the nation takes steps to ease its policy, with some cities encouraging certain families to have a second child, people like Zhang illustrate how difficult it will be for the government to root out ingrained attitudes.

Having only one child is now widely accepted, especially among urban residents. In Shanghai, China's largest city, a recent government survey of about 20,000 young people found that more than 80% preferred to have just one child. Another 5% said they wanted no children at all.

The findings worried officials all the more because this metropolis of 17 million was already grappling with plummeting births. Last year, about 57,000 babies were born in Shanghai, but there were nearly twice as many deaths. Such a large gap has profound implications for the future workforce and for an aging society. At the current rate, the city would face labor shortages, even with its sizable inflow of migrants.

Shanghai, with its affluence, fast-paced lifestyle and gleaming skyscrapers, isn't a typical Chinese city. But researchers believe that its demographic quandary typifies what other areas in China will confront in coming years: a society with too few children.

Shanghai Eases Policy

Keenly aware of that, Shanghai's Population and Family Planning Commission reformed parts of the one-child law last spring, making it easier for people such as remarried couples to have more children. Zhang and his wife can have a second child because they come from one-child households.

Shanghai officials added 11 exemptions to the one-child policy, including removing the waiting period for certain families. Also, in the fall the city scrapped a financial reward that had long been given to childless couples.

So far, the changes in Shanghai have spurred only about 100 more people a month to seek government permission for a second child. The commission's director said her office was prepared to handle 10 times that number.

"It's a big problem," said Zhang Henian, associate professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. Rapid economic growth and the rise of urban society are major factors underlying Shanghai's low fertility rate, but Zhang said it's hard to reverse 25 years of heavy promotion of the idea that one child is best.

"In the past, the goodness of the one-child policy was overly stressed," he said.

Shanghai's prevailing attitude toward childbirth isn't representative of all of China. Couples living in some rural areas have long been allowed to have two or more children, and many continue to prefer larger families.

In the mountainous southern province of Yunnan, there were 17 births per 1,000 residents last year -- compared with four for Shanghai, five for Beijing and 12 for the country as a whole. (The U.S. birthrate was about 14 per 1,000 residents.) To bring Yunnan's birthrate more in line with the nation's, the government is rewarding some families that stick to one child with a pension and cash for school tuition.

At the same time, other regions of China are experimenting with ways to encourage childbearing. Beijing's municipal government recently drafted new regulations that would increase time off and improve insurance policies for older women taking maternity leave. In east China's Zhejiang province, one city sharply lowered penalties for those who break the one-child rule, which are typically several times a family's annual income.

Such geographical disparities make it difficult for the central government to formulate a new national birth-control policy. At this point, Beijing hasn't spelled out what local jurisdictions can do, but it's understood they can't stray too far from the existing national policy.

Officials say the one-child law has reduced births by about 300 million and lifted living standards. China, with 1.3 billion people, remains the world's most populous country.

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