China Ink

New consensus after census?

The census results are in: China is getting older, and the one-child policy may have to be reformed…

Demographic
crisis ahead?

Demographic crisis ahead?

Predictably, China’s press corps was more upbeat about the census results. The low population growth rate (just 0.57%) “demonstrates positive changes in China over the past decade,” trumpeted Xinhua. Even the resulting rise in the proportion of the elderly (and the imminent peak in working-aged population) was spun positively by the China Daily too: “ [It] will help to accelerate the transformation of the growth model from one which is export and investment-led to one driven by services and consumption.”

The international media thought so. The Economist was particularly gloomy about the population figures (“China is suffering from a demographic problem… too low a birth rate”) and the UK’s Guardian newspaper agreed: “The economy will soon have to cope with a shrinking labour force, as well as a growing number of elderly dependents”. An aging population could well contribute to derailing China’s booming economic growth, thought the Daily Telegraph.

The end of the one-child era?

Here local media was more ambivalent. The numbers show some success in improving the country’s gender imbalance over the last decade (there are now 105 boys for every 100 girls which Xinhua proclaimed “the most balanced gender ratio for about half a century”). But the same article also noted that the ratio had actually got worse for newborns over the last 10 years (118:100) due to gender selection by parents (aborting female foetuses). That prompted the China Daily to call for policymakers to “gradually loosen” family-planning rules.The argument for change was bolstered by a New Century Weekly investigation into abuse of the one-child system. In a widely read piece, it found that second-born children were sold by local officials in Hunan to orphanages for foreign adoption.

International media publications were in agreement that reform looks more likely now than previously. The consensus was there’s now little danger of a population explosion if rules were relaxed. “For many parents [in major cities],” claims the Telegraph, “rising prices have made it all but impossible to afford more than one child anyway.”

The Economist was more blunt in arguing that the one-child policy had exacerbated China’s “dire gender imbalance” and it argued that the census results would “intensify debate” between the (more traditionalist) Family Planning Commission and academics. “Perhaps a ‘two-for-all’ policy may not be out of the question,” the magazine concluded.

What about migrant workers?

Much was made of the decision to count ‘migrant workers’ for the first time. The results were expected to help policymakers decide whether to offer migrants similar welfare benefits to ‘official’ city residents. And there are at least 221 million migrants, the census found, which may prompt a policy rethink. Significantly Xinhua wrote: “[President Hu Jintao] said that management and services for ‘floating’ populations should be improved.”

Whether China could cope with the urbanisation of hundreds of millions of migrants in towns and cities was another question posed by the foreign press. The Hong Kong Standard cited “stress on urban infrastructure” while the Guardian worried that the environment would inevitably “come under immense pressure” as more migrants moved into the cities.


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