Zhai Zhenwu

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by Zhai Zhenwu

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Oct 27, 2011

At the 22nd meeting of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People’s Congress on August 24, the Committee’s vice-chairman and secretary general Li Jianguoreported on the committee’s inspection and enforcement of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Protection of the Rights and Interests of the Aged. In his report, Li presented lots of facts and figures about China’s elderly population, fueling a new round of heated discussion of China’s family planning policy in Chinese and foreign media.

In China, population is a complicated issue calling for comprehensive study. The development of its economy and society and decline of its fertility ratewill inevitably cause China to go through the process of population ageing. China has registered a fertility decline even as its economy remains underdeveloped. This speedydecline has been the result of artificial interference –the implementation of a family planning policy.

China will adjust its family planning policy in line with its overall economic and social development. Onceit brings the excessive growth of its population under effective control, it will duly adjust its family planning policy.

Adjustment of the family planning policy will help slow down the process of population ageing; benefit perfection and optimization of the family structure; prevent imbalance of the birth sex ratio; and satisfy the child-bearing wish of the broad masses of the people.

No policy can be perfected or adjusted, however, at one go.Adjustments can only be made gradually. When it comes to adjustment of a major policy such as population planning, discussions and studies must be made in great detail before any changes are made. In its outline for economic and social development during the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015), China has specified that ‘the basic state policy of family planning will be continued and perfected step by step,’articulating its intention to adjust its population policy and indicating the direction of such adjustment.

To adjust its family planning policy, China should take the following factors into full consideration.First of all, Chinanow has the room to adjust the family planning policy because its population growth has been brought under effective control thanks to implementation of the family planning policy for the last 30 years. Had its population continued to grow wildly, it would not have hadthe basis for perfection or adjustment of this fundamental policy. Secondly, given the fact that its population structure contradiction is becoming ever more apparent with each passing day, it is necessary to make some adjustment before it is too late. And thirdly, adjustment of the family planning policy should be made slowly and deliberately to prevent violent fluctuation of the population.

What should be understood clearly, however, is the fact that China cannot reverse the trend or direction of population ageing, whether it gives up the family planning policy or not. Even if a policy is adopted right now to allow couples who are both single children to have two children, this will merely slow down the population ageing process to a limited extent. In other words, it will roughly bring the percentage of the aged population against the total population down from 28 per cent to 25 per cent or 26 per cent, a drop of just 2-3 percentage points.

All policies are transitional, and evolve with changes inhuman perceptions.. In China’s case, the drive of modernization, urbanization and industrialization has promoted the constant perfection of the social insurance system, and has resulted in a sharp decrease in demand to provide for the aged.

Perfection of thesocial insurance system will be the fundamental cure for China’s headache of population ageing. But China should also take the initiative to transform its model of economic development, promote industrial upgrading, increaselabour productivity, and turn labour-intensive enterprises into technology-intensive ones to cope with the situation of a shrinking labour force.

China should not base its economic development or growth on population growth. Instead, it should strive to improve the quality of its current population and raise their cultural and scientific level to prepare comparative advantages for future development.

It is unnecessary for us to worry about the disappearance of demographic dividend because its disappearance will force us to transform the model of economic development, promote industrial upgrading, increase labour productivity, safeguard rights and interests, and build a society of greater harmony.

China’s current population structure looks like aninverted pyramid, with the aged at the top growing in number year after year and the newborns at the bottom dropping continuously, a situation that can not be avoided now. Even if China adjusts its family planning policy right away, it can not bring about any fundamental changes to its population structure. China will see a gradual fall in the number of its aged population only around the year 2040 when its aged population hits over 400 million China’s population structure will surely be much better 40 years from now.

Zhai Zhenwu is executive vice-president of China Population Association and President of the Society and Population Institute of Renmin University of China