11:00 GMT16 May 2021
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    Will China Have Difficulty Ending Birth Restrictions?

    Pivot to Asia
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    China seems to be about to end all limits on the number of children a Chinese family can have. The State Council has commissioned research on the repercussions of ending the country’s roughly four-decade-old family planning policies. Can these possible changes actually be implemented in today's turbulent economic situation?

    Bryce Swerhun, a researcher at the City University of Hong Kong joins the program.

    Bryce starts the program by saying that the family planning policies were adequate for the time in which they were implemented — "It was felt necessary to control the size of the population, especially during a time of the great uncertainty after the revolution and the emergence of urbanization, when there was concern as to the future political dynamic within a population that would be growing unchecked, and potentially moving unchecked as well. The 'One Child' policy started as an educational initiative in the 1970s and by 1979 it became a requirement….China is rapidly becoming one of the most aged societies in the world, with one third of the population in being old by 2030."

    Many observers have said that the changes are coming too late. "In terms of demographics, there is only so much you can do in a short period of time to change the map. There is only so much that China can do to change the picture that is going to happen in less than 15 years….In terms of whether this is a disaster or not, well this is also being asked in places like Japan and Europe. The big question is productivity. How many people do we need to generate the same economic returns? How do we do more with less and provide the tax base to be able to provide the necessary social programs for the elderly. So the question for a developing economy is — are we able to develop an economy which is able to sustain itself on fewer people? This is a serious question in China because so much of the current and 20th century growth was/is based on cheap labour….But that is now changing, and China is now no longer the center for cheap labor that it once was. Much of the economic growth is now coming from highly skilled occupations and technical development. But at the same time, China is experiencing significant productivity challenges as one of the least productive economies in the world for an economy of its size….So China has two options. One is to develop more technology, and generate products that are not just based on cheap labor, and to do more with a smaller/aging population. The other option is to increase the size of the work force, which of course means higher fertility rates. China seems to be uncertain which direction to take. At the moment they seem to trying to do both at the same time…"

    One might think that perhaps there could be immigration of young workers from other countries such as India to replace the lack of young Chinese workers. Bryce says that this is unlikely given the significant control that the Chinese government has over the entry of people to the country. "It's a very planned economy." Bryce sees migration taking place, but within the country…people from rural China into urban areas. This is the greatest movement of people in recent [world] history." There is a limit, however, how much urbanization can take place in that all the people moving to the cities have to be trained to function in the market place and all of this takes up resources. Bryce also points out that the poverty of elderly people is more serious in the poorer, western parts of the country than in the comparatively affluent East, so the demographic nightmare that will soon be upon China may not be evenly spread throughout the country, and Bryce explains some of the details of how this is unfolding.

    In the second part of the program, the rising cost of raising children in urban centers is discussed, and the impact that will have on the Chinese government's efforts to increase fertility rates. Allowing parents to have as many children as they like, under the new 'independent fertility' program that is now being discussed, raises the question of women's rights, as many Chinese women now feel that they want the right to compete with men in the workplace and do not see why they should be encouraged to give birth to a large number of children. In this context, Bryce comments: "President Xi Jingping seems to be interested in stressing traditional values, family values. Recent controls in the media seem to be directed at the idea of reducing recreational love and sex; it is all about the family. The State wants to return to a more family-orientated society, but this is going to come at a cost to some of the gains, especially in the middle classes, that some people have realized as a result of economic growth."

    The preference for male children, at least the first born, is something that is certainly a combination of state policies and cultural traditions. Perhaps the new policies will address that. Bryce comments that we forget that China is still a developing country, agriculture and physical labor is very important and thus the preference for a male first child. "We talk about China as being a developed economy but in fact it is still a developing economy." 

    When talking about China we also forget that we are talking about a country that has a national government but yet which also has provincial and municipal level governments which sometimes interpret policy differently. For some Han Chinese (the dominant ethnic group), for example, there were relaxations in different provinces for families where the first child was female. But this was not the case in areas populated by ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and Muslim minorities further West…

    If China is looking to increase its birth rate, it will be faced with two problems, Firstly, it is going to be too late to make an impact before 2030, and secondly China has to solve productivity problems.  In order to increase productivity, it may be necessary to introduce reforms: Bryce says: "It will be necessary to take a look at the state owned enterprises which are a source of inefficiency in the economy, but this would require the State allowing more independent management and flexibility in the market, and it is not entirely sure that they are willing to let this happen especially as we are now living in the likelihood of a trade war; it's a very difficult time for the Chinese State to take a step back. 

    We'd love to get your feedback at radio@sputniknews.com

    demographics, one-child policy, population control, family, China, Asia
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