Editor's Note: China has made unprecedented economic achievements over the past decades thanks to the demographic dividends it enjoyed. But the falling fertility rate threatens to rob the country of those demographic dividends, so it had to ease the family planning policy to prevent that from happening, writes a veteran journalist with China Daily in the first of a series of commentaries.
A family takes photos against a backdrop of blooming sunflowers at the Olympic Forest Park in Beijing, on July 4, 2021. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
That China has eased the family planning policy three times in recent years shows how seriously it is dealing with its demographic challenges. The policy reform that allows, even encourages, all couples to have more than one child, is aimed at raising the falling total fertility rate, according to the National Health Commission.
For centuries, China has been the world's most populous country. In fact, China's ancient capital of Xi'an boasted a population of 1 million during the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
When the People's Republic was founded in 1949, China's population was about 500 million. It increased at a rapid pace after that because of the peaceful atmosphere in the country and the prospects of a better life－the first national census in 1953 showed the country's population had reached 542 million.
Most of the people aged between 10 and 40 in China today are the only child of their parents. Those who are not are either members of ethnic minority groups or from rural areas
In 1964, China's population surpassed 700 million. Five years later, it had increased to 800 million. By the end of the 1970s, China had a population of more than 1 billion. With the population increasing at the rate of 100 million every five years, many people predicted China's population would reach 2 billion in a few decades.
Rapid population increase led to the shortage of food, housing and other resources, and environmental destruction. Employment, too, became a big problem. As a result, millions of high school graduates in urban areas were sent to rural areas to work as farmers.
It was then that the government adopted a national family planning policy and wrote it into the Constitution. That was in 1980. The policy, widely known as the "one couple, one child" policy, was strictly followed in China－except that ethnic minority groups were allowed to have two or more children, and some rural couples whose first baby was a daughter were allowed to have a second child because they relied more on their offspring to take care of them in their old age.
Offenders were punished with severe fines which ranged from 1,000 yuan ($155.18) to 5,000 yuan－a big sum in those days as it accounted for a worker's annual income. Civil servants and State employees who violated the policy could also be fired apart from being fined. Although many couples were happy to have just one child, overall the Chinese people cooperated with the government because they realized that unless harsh measures were taken to curb the rising population trend, our life would become miserable.
This resulted in the "one-child" generation. Most of the people aged between 10 and 40 in China today are the only child of their parents. Those who are not are either members of ethnic minority groups or from rural areas.
The strict family planning policy helped reduce the total fertility rate. According to the seventh national census, announced in May by the National Bureau of Statistics, the Chinese mainland's population had reached 1.41 billion by the end of 2020, accounting for 19 percent of the world's total. But without the strict family planning policy, China's present population could be between 1.8 billion and 2 billion.
Western media outlets and politicians have criticized the family planning policy from the day it was implemented, alleging it is a violation of human rights. But to us, a generation which made a big sacrifice to control the national population, such accusations appear vacuous. Had the Chinese government allowed the population to grow and reach, say, 2 billion which would have drastically increased unemployment and poverty in the country, the very same Western outlets and politicians would have attacked China and its ruling party, accusing them of poor governance.
As an old Chinese saying goes, none but the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. As a member of a generation that experienced and, in fact, sacrificed to make the family planning policy a success, we know only too well that it is a sacrifice that had to be made for the betterment of the country and the Chinese people.
Now that the total fertility rate has fallen below the replacement fertility rate of about 2.1 children per woman, the government has amended the Population and Family Planning Law, in a bid to encourage all couples to have three children to prevent the country from losing its demographic dividends, as well as to offset the effects of the rapidly rising aging population.
The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.