REN WANG, CHINA — Behind the high gray walls of this farming village, peasant couples are conducting an experiment that suggests, its designers say, that the most unpopular and costly policy of the past quarter- century may not have been necessary.
For the past 21 years, the citizens of Yicheng County, in the mining province of Shanxi, have been exempt from the "one-child policy" on which the Chinese government has founded its bid to keep a lid on its vast population. They have been allowed to have two children. Yet Yicheng's birth-rate is lower than the national average.
"If the whole country had adopted the Yicheng policy from the start, we could have kept China's population under 1.2 billion," below the official target for 2000, says Tan Kejian, of Shanxi's provincial Academy of Social Sciences. "And this policy was much easier for peasants to accept."
Central government officials chal- lenge Mr. Kejian's conclusions. But the government-sanctioned Yicheng experiment, almost unknown outside family-planning circles, is under increasingly interested scrutiny from Chinese experts as the "one-child policy" approaches what appears to be the end of its life, after 27 years.
"Most scholars are recommending to the government that the one-child policy needs to be turned into a two-child policy," says Chen Wei, head of the Population and Sustainable Development Group at Renmin University in Beijing. "Maybe not now, but in 2010," when the next five-year plan begins.
Officials at the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which has been responsible for implementing the one-child policy, insist that "the success of China's family-planning policy has been of huge significance," in the words of Yu Xuejun, director of the commission's policy and legislation department. "I am confident our general direction is correct," he says.
But the one-child policy, beyond raising worldwide concerns about the forced abortions and sterilizations that have scarred several generations of Chinese women, has bequeathed a grave legacy.
China's population is aging fast; by 2020, 234 million people, or 16 percent of the population, will be over 60, official figures indicate, up from 9 percent today.
At the same time, 30 million Chinese men will find no brides in 2020; a traditional preference for sons, the spread of ultrasound technology, and the one-child policy have combined to promote widespread sex-selective abortion, officials say.
With male births outnumbering female births by 118 to 100, China is storing up a "hidden danger" that will "affect social stability," a recent government report warned.
Discriminatory abortion is not a problem, though, in Yicheng, which has long applied one of the most liberal of the range of policies imposed around the country.
The "one-child policy" has in fact been much more flexible since the mid-1980s than its name suggests. While it has been strictly enforced in cities, affecting about 36 percent of the national population, parents in most rural areas – accounting for 53 percent of Chinese – are allowed a second child if their first is a girl. In a few cases, families can have three children.
"Overall, it's more of a one-and-a-half child policy," says Professor Chen.
Things are different for Yicheng's 310,000 inhabitants. Parents there can have two children, whatever the sex of their firstborn, if they adhere to certain conditions.
Men may not marry before the age of 25 and women may not before age 23 without being fined. That's three years later for both sexes than the national policy. They must also wait six years before having a second baby. If they don't, they are fined 1,200 RMB (about $160) per year early, or about 20 percent of an average couple's income in the region, says Yang Chunxiang, the family-planning boss here in Ren Wang.
"No one here is rich enough to pay that easily," she says. There have been no third children in the village since the '80s, and few whose birth didn't track the six-year gap.
"The one-child policy ran into strong opposition from people right from the start," says Liang Zhongtang, who designed Yicheng's policy. "I proposed a two-child policy to see if people still opposed that."
From his post as a teacher at the Communist Party school in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi, Professor Liang quickly rallied local family planning workers to his cause.
"People were just ignoring the policy and the government had to punish them" with fines and confiscations, recalls An Dousheng, an old man in Mao cap and collar, who headed Yicheng's family-planning unit in the 1980s. "It was difficult work. Ordinary people did not welcome the policy and did not cooperate. Our work was called 'the hardest job under the heavens.' "
"We were delighted by the new policy" when it was introduced in 1985, says Duan Chunmao. the Communist Party secretary in Ren Wang. "People felt it was more appropriate to their situation, and it helped cement links between the people and the party" that had been strained.
Twenty years on, its fruits are clear. Yicheng's fertility rate is below 9 per 1,000; the national average is 12 per 1,000. Yicheng's gender ratio at birth is 106 to 100, showing no distortion. Even more remarkably, large numbers of couples today choose to have only one child. Almost half the families in Ren Wang, for example, have only one child (though some may have a second later.)
"Nowadays, people don't want big families" says Ms. Yang. "It's very expensive – with fewer [kids] you can get richer faster."
Lü Yueping, a village shopkeeper, says she would have liked a grandson but both her daughters have had girls and neither is planning a second child. "My elder daughter is an accountant," she explains. "She is really busy."
"Mind-sets have changed a lot," says Cheng Fakui, former vice mayor of Yicheng in charge of family planning in the '80s. "A lot of people want to live for themselves, not just for their children."
China's economic development – reinforced by the one-child policy – has spread this mind-set across the countryside; children are expensive to educate, no longer so necessary for fieldwork, and increasingly unwilling to care for their aged parents – a prime motivation for having children.
The average Chinese couple now has 1.7 children, according to estimates by Renmin University's Population Studies Institute. That is only marginally more than the average number of children – 1.6 - allowed by current policy.
"Much of the decline in fertility can be traced to social and economic change," says Henry Winckler, a demographer at Columbia University in New York. "Probably relatively little ... resulted from making the small family mandatory and from using heavy-handed techniques to enforce it."
Liang, an outspoken critic of the policy, agrees. "[It] is like tilting at windmills," he scoffs. "If the policy Yicheng adopted was successful there, it could have been successfully adopted anywhere else in China."
Top officials at the National Population and Family Planning Commission dispute that. "Experiments are only experiments." points out Dr. Yu. "We dare not make a conclusion that the success" of Yicheng's policy "can represent other experiences."
Yu doubts that the enthusiasm with which Yicheng's leadership applied the policy – ensuring no third births and enforcing birth spacing – could be matched nationally.
In Yicheng, experts express disappointment at the government's failure to extend their policy elsewhere in China. One senior local official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, suggested that Beijing "is worried by population pressures and doesn't want to make any mistakes. They are very cautious."
Liang is blunter. "The leaders who make decisions don't understand the nuances of the Yicheng policy and don't want to learn about them," he complains.
Behind the reluctance, suggests Susan Greenhalgh, an expert on China's birth-control policy at the University of California, Irvine, lie wider considerations. The one-child policy is too deeply embedded in the post-Mao political consensus, she believes. "Advocating change of this ... involves political risks that, so far, no national political leader – or not enough of them – feel in a position to take."
Yicheng's time may now have come, however. Officials say the one-child policy will be maintained until 2010, but it is clear that they are studying alternatives.
"Now that the fertility rate is low, the government has expressed interest in researching directions for future adjustments in family-planning policy," says Yu. "Yicheng's experience should provide a good reference point for us."