China's baby boomers spawn a new boom

The world's most populous country is having a baby boom. Foreign demographic experts say it is the result of China's 1962-64 population boom and a relaxation of the country's strict policy of one child per family.

A report released this week by China's State Statistical Bureau indicates an annual growth rate of 1.3 percent for 1986. This was an increase over the 1.2 percent average annual growth rate from the years 1980 to 1985, according to a United Nations estimate.

The birth rate also jumped from 11.23 per thousand in 1985 to 14.8 per thousand last year, exceeding the government's estimate for the year. Despite the increase, China's population growth rate remains well below other developing countries in Asia, which typically average well above 2 percent per year.

With a population now estimated at 1.06 billion, the country added 14 million more people in 1986, according to the government report.

Peking's current five-year plan aims to limit China's population to 1.13 billion by 1990, with a natural increase rate of 12.6 per thousand, per year. Even at the higher-growth- rate experience of 1986, that goal appears to be within reach. But the long-term target of 1.2 billion by 2000 looks ``very ambitious,'' foreign experts say, even though they estimate that the baby-boom surge will taper off in 1988 or '89.

``If the population grows too fast, it will hinder the modernization drive, since a baby boom is approaching,'' Premier Zhao Ziyang said last December. China's strict family-planning policy, Mr. Zhao said, should remain in effect for at least a dozen more years.

Foreign experts say there are two principal reasons for China's more rapid growth in 1986, despite a birth-control policy adopted in 1979 that has brought a sharp drop in population growth.

One reason is the increase in the number of women of child-bearing age as China enters the first echo of the '62-'64 baby boom. Most women marry in their early 20s, with a minimum marriage age of 20 years for women, 22 for men. Women commonly give birth within the first two years of marriage.

Foreign observers say Chinese family-planning officials anticipated the baby boom, though last year's population increase in urban areas, especially in overcrowded Shanghai, was much greater than planned and presents serious problems.

Another reason for the increase is that family-planning policies have been relaxed in some areas, and the number of exemptions has been expanded. In many rural areas couples may now apply for permission to have a second child if the first is a girl. One foreign expert said such exemptions were intended to make compliance with the one-child rule easier to bear. Other observers have said that the relaxation has helped reduce incidents of female infanticide, aggravated several years ago when enforcement of the one-child policy was especially severe.

Enforcement of China's birth-control policies relies heavily on education and peer pressure, and observers say that reports and rumors of more coercive methods have almost disappeared in the past year. Pilot education programs now reach into middle (high) schools in some cities, targeting students in their early teens with carefully designed materials that explain the policy.

However, couples continue to avoid compliance, especially in remote regions where enforcement by local officials is often lax. Also, as rural families have become more prosperous, according to one population expert, the government's financial penalties for having more than one child have become affordable.

There are also a number of specific exceptions to the one-child policy. For example, fishermen and farmers in mountainous areas may have a second try for a son if the first child is a girl. There is also a broad exemption for China's 55 recognized ethnic minorities (about 67 million people), who have been permitted two or more children.

In a tightening of the policy in December, Peking announced that the one-child rule would apply to minority groups whose numbers exceeded 10 million. There is only one group that large: the Zhuang minority in southern China. Other minorities are permitted to have two children, but in no case would anyone be allowed to have more than three.

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