Beijing (AsiaNews) - The call for an end or change to the country's one-child policy is getting louder. China's most hated and most criticised law at home and abroad was imposed at the end of the 1970s by Deng Xiaoping to favour economic development without the extra burden of newly born. This prevented the birth of more than 400 million children, as China's leadership is often happy to point out, but now it has become a burden in and of itself.
Last Friday, Ma Jiantang, the head of the National Bureau of Statistics, reported that the total size of the working population, aged 15 to 59, fell last year by 3.45 million, to 937 million. He stressed that this was the first such decline in recent history.
Pressed by reporters, he said he was concerned about the decline. In a carefully worded reply, he added that, whilst the mainland should stick to its national family-planning policy, it should also consider "appropriate and scientific" changes; if for no other reason that is increasingly viewed as an obstacle to economic growth.
Chinese demographers explained that the country's labour force will start declining in 2025 at a rate of about 10 million a year. Meanwhile, its elderly population will hit 360 million by 2030, from about 200 million this year. therefore, if limits on births continue, there will be fewer workers and taxpayers, but more senior citizens to take care.
Economists say the policy is responsible for China's high savings rate. A single child often must take care of two-and four in the case of married couples-retired parents, increasing the likelihood that working adults will save money for their old age rather than spend.
This has delayed the "rebalancing" of Beijing's economy towards more consumption, a step economists believe China needs to take to keep its growth going.
In recent years, many academics have called on the government to revise population controls because of their impact on the workforce in the highly industrialised coastal regions.
The provinces of Guangdong and Shanghai have also asked the central government to allow couples to have at least two children to meet industrial needs.
Nothing has been done so far.
In November, during the Communist Party congress, Hu Jintao for the first time dropped the phrase "maintain a low birth rate", which had been used in previous reports.
For some observers, this is a sign that the new administration under Xi Jinping might be planning policy changes. But it is likely that reformers and conservatives within the party are still at odds with one another.
In fact, Ma Jiantang voiced his concerns just two days after the National Population and Family Planning Commission held its annual conference, in which officials vowed to unswervingly uphold family planning as a long-term fundamental national policy.
Measures to keep the national birth rate low are going to be around "for a long time", said Wang Xia, minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission.
However, more and more voices are issuing dire warnings. Tian Xueyuan, one of the drafters of the original one-child policy, said he had warned top officials nearly a decade ago of the flaws.
"A substantial portion of China's men will not be able to find a match . . . and that will be a major factor of social instability," Tian said he told party leaders.
The traditional preference for boys over girls has in fact led to selective female abortions and a high number of girls being abandoned.
According to the World Health Organisation, a gap of 40 million girls has developed since 1980 so that at present 118 boys are born for every 100 girls, against a global average of 103 to 107.
Ordinary Chinese have been the staunchest opponents of the one-child policy. Over the years, their resistance was met with violence. Couples guilty of having a second child were often forced to pay hefty fines, loses their job, endure beatings, or forced into abortions and sterilisation.
Last June, the case of a seven-month pregnant woman forced to abort was posted online, causing a deluge of criticism in China and the world.
What is likely to happen now is that China's leaders may not be moved by criticism but will kneel to economic pressures.
The policy itself might no longer be needed because the high cost having children is enough to discourage would-be parents.
Even now, the one-child policy covers only 63 per cent of all Chinese. Ethnic minorities, rural couples whose first child is a girl and couples in which both partners are only children can have two children.
In addition, the country's top party officials and its class of nouveaux riches have managed to have two or more children through legal means such as acquiring foreign citizenship or by simply breaching the regulations without suffering any consequences, even this it does cause social tensions.