Census report: China could grow old before it grows rich

China's vast population is aging fast, threatening the pace of economic growth.

Andy Wong/AP
Chinese people visit Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Thursday. China's population is aging rapidly, and half the people now live in cities, the government said Thursday. The data from a national census carried out late last year will fuel debate about whether China should continue with its "one-child" policy, experts said.

China’s population is aging fast and growing more urban at breakneck speed, census results released on Thursday show, posing new problems for the government as it seeks to fine tune its one-child policy and maintain its pace of economic growth.

The most populous country in the world has 1.34 billion people. But while the proportion of children has fallen sharply over the past decade, the number of pensioners has risen rapidly.

The statistics reflect China’s one-child policy, which has purposely pushed the fertility rate down to just 1.5 children per woman, one of the lowest rates in the world, since it was introduced three decades ago. Now, some analysts say the country may have to adjust its priorities.

“The population is aging faster than predicted,” says Du Peng, a demographer at Renmin University in Beijing. “If we have controlled population growth, the question now is how we improve policies to take both aging and fertility rates into account.”

Fine tuning one-child and cities

While sticking to the general policy of allowing only one child per family, the authorities have allowed a number of exceptions in recent years in a bid to counter the aging trend, which could mean that China will grow old before it grows rich, some economists warn.

Couples who are both only children are now allowed to have two children themselves almost everywhere in China, for example. Outside cities, parents whose first child is a girl are allowed to have a second child, a rule that acknowledges the traditional Chinese preference for sons.

The government’s drive to urbanize the Chinese population, which makes the distribution of social services easier, has had a massive impact during the past 10 years, the census figures reveal. The urban population has rocketed by about 45 percent, and Chinese are today almost equally divided between town and country.

A large part of that shift has come with the ballooning numbers of migrant workers who have poured into the cities, mainly in the prosperous eastern coastal provinces, seeking work on construction sites and in factories as the Chinese economy has boomed.

The number of migrant workers has risen by 81 percent to 221 million, said Ma Jiantang, deputy head of the government team that ran the November 2010 census, as he unveiled the results.

Good news for girls

The census figures also suggest that China has begun to reverse an alarming rise in gender imbalance, which nonetheless still threatens tens of millions of young Chinese men with the prospect of never finding a bride.

The one-child policy and the traditional – though weakening – preference here for a son has led to widespread abortions of female fetuses. The current sex ratio at birth is 118 boys for every 100 girls, Mr. Ma said; that is still the largest imbalance in the world, but it is down from 119.5 boys per 100 girls in 2009.

“2009 was a turning point” says Professor Du. “We should be on a declining trend now” after two decades of efforts to encourage parents to have girl babies, including financial and other incentives.

Another success Ma highlighted was in education: The number of Chinese university graduates has increased by 250 percent since the previous census in 2000, he said, reflecting a major government drive to expand higher education.

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