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Date Posted: 16:59 08/01/2005

China's official population hits 1.3 billion

But that's the least of the government's worries.

THIS WEEK much of the Chinese press has been preoccupied with the birth of a small boy in Beijing. The poor little baby was snatched from his mother's breast and placed under the glaring, buzzing striplights of the regime's propaganda machine after being chosen, quite arbitrarily, to serve as the country's 1.3 billionth citizen.

That figure is, of course, spurious in countless different ways. For one, there is nothing to suggest that the projection models used by the State Population and Family Planning Commission are especially accurate, or that the 1.3 billion threshold was actually passed on Thursday evening, Tuesday morning or indeed last April. And it was telling that the government chose a Beijing birth rather than one in Ningxia, Tibet, or Ladakh.

Indeed, most experts believe that the 1.3 billion figure is a significant understatement, with a large number of new-borns thought to be living a spectral and unacknowledged existence in the shadows of the countryside, lest their parents be punished for overprocreation.

Still, the events this week were little more than a stunt to promote the virtues of the family planning regime known as the One Child Policy, subject to a great deal of criticism in the US media near the end of last year. The newspapers were quick to point out that without the policy, the 1.3 billion mark would have been hit years ago, and that today's figure would stand closer to 1.6 billion.

As the government is now acknowledging, the simple reduction in the rate of population growth is only one part of the impact the policy has had on the country. Before we lose ourselves in the hoary (and misleading) clichés about 'armies of single men' about to descend upon the cities to kidnap or ravage virgins, procure brides from Vietnam or North Korea or launch an aggressive lebensraum war against Mongolia, it needs to be said that as well as the growing gender gap, which has led this week to a renewed crackdown on gender selective abortion, the government is also trying to get to grips with what it calls the 'population quality gap'.

To wit, they have found, not surprisingly, that the One Child Policy has been most effective in areas where it was needed the least, Shanghai being the prime example, leading to population growth rates of close to zero and to subsequent worries about severe gentrification and an overwhelmed medical system within fifty years. Conversely, the population continues to grow at unsustainable levels in the regions that are already finding it difficult to cope. And these are the areas where the One Child Policy is more difficult to implement, despite draconian punishments. The government has of course given some leeway to families in rural areas, allowing them to try for a second child if the first one is a girl. Ethnic minorities, even in the appalling poverty of Ningxia, normally have no restrictions at all.

Overpopulation does not cause poverty, but is usually the result of it, and when a society becomes more prosperous, the birth rate generally falls. The Chinese government is already moving away from the blanket implementation of the family planning policy throughout China and towards a more nuanced approach, and by doing so, they have clearly come to understand that the real population problem is caused by the profound urban-rural income gap, and by the lack of education and opportunity across vast swathes of the interior. Solving those problems is, of course, immeasurably more difficult.

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