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Date Posted: 10:34 27/05/2004

Youth Daily proposes changes to One Child Policy

The poor are always with us, and there may be more and more of them.

ONE OF the lessons one always learns when talking about China is that everything is always on a much bigger scale than anywhere else. Some of the figures being exchanged during the World Bank Conference on Reducing Poverty held in Shanghai this week were typical, and bear repeating.

For instance, the level of absolute poverty has - according to government figures, and based on the international standard of a dollar a day - fallen from about 49% in 1978 to 6.9% in 2002, but those bare percentages tend to conceal both the achievements and the challenges that still await. There are, for example, 88 million Chinese people living on less than a dollar a day. Almost 30 million people live on less than 80 dollars a year, and while population growth has slowed down, the bulk of it is, apparently, still taking place in villages that are already desperately poor.

The government newspaper (aren't they all? Ed.), China Youth Daily, published an intriguing story on Monday about possible changes to the One Child Policy. As a result of the serious imbalances in the Chinese birth rate, the time has come to relax the restrictions, the article said.

Criticizing the One Child Policy was, for some time, one of the many taboos set by China's Propaganda Ministry. However, after a number of frank discussions at the annual NPC and CPPCC meetings this year, there are some indications in the official media that the government is considering a change. Usually, spokesmen and experts have cited the growing gender imbalance and the 'army' of sexually-frustrated single men that may well descend upon us over the next few decades. On this occasion, we are told about the growing regional imbalances.

Citing figures from the census department of the National Bureau of Statistics, China Youth Daily notes that China's population has already entered the 'low birth rate, low death rate, low rate of increase' stage of development. The total population was just under 1.3 billion by the end of last year, and according to the official government line, it would have been as high as 1.6 billion if the One Child Policy had not been enforced.

With that low birth rate, low death rate and low rate of increase, China has reached a 'watershed', but it masks some of the imbalances that now exist. The first, as ever, is between the city and the countryside. Poor families in the countryside habitually breach the regulations and have three or four children. The overall figures are misleading because population growth in the poorest regions has not actually slowed down at all.

The second imbalance, not surprisingly, is between east and west, with the birth rate in the developed coastal regions much lower than the 'backward' west. In relatively well-off cities like Shanghai, the population has even begun to fall, with the prosperous 'dink' community getting ever larger. Social security will also become a growing burden among those single-child households, especially as the average age of the population increases.

Population control is not merely a question of numbers, the report states, but also a question of 'quality'. 'If the population of China's prosperous regions is falling, and the population of the backward and rural regions increasing, it is bound to cause social problems.'

There's a vicious circle, Youth Daily points out. The poorer these regions are, the more kids they have, and the more kids they have, the poorer they become.

Urbanization is critical, and the government aims to move 200 million rural people to the towns and cities in the next 15 years, an endeavour fraught with difficulties and raising concerns about the growth in urban slum dwellings and the 'threats to social disorder' that they bring.

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