Beijing (AsiaNews/Scmp) - The mainland population is ageing at a phenomenal rate under the one-child policy and will reach a peak of 1.45 billion in about 20 years, according to a report from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. This anticipated figure is lower than the 1.6 billion peak International forecasters have been predicting for 2050.
Zhang Yi , from the academy's Institute of Population and Labour Economics, said the lower and earlier population peak was due to the low fertility and low mortality rates. Professor Zhang said this was in sharp contrast to the high fertility rates registered before the one-child family planning policy was introduced in the late 1970s.
But population analysts are considering whether the policy should be loosened because the country is ageing faster than expected. They say the situation will worsen as the number of retired workers grows and the pool of people paying into pension funds shrinks. A national census conducted five years ago indicated that women gave birth to 1.2 children on average and the country's population had increased by about 10 million a year since the 1990s.
Zeng Yi , from Peking University's China Centre for Economic Research, estimated that if the one-child policy remained in place, the population would decline dramatically after the 2025 peak and drop by 100 million every decade between 2030 and 2080. After 2025, people 65 or over would account for at least 20 per cent of the population, more than double the ratio now.
"There is no doubt that a rapid decrease in the population will result in not only ageing problems but other serious problems like labour shortages," Professor Zeng said. "There will also be insufficient funds to cover social insurance and pensions, economic gloom and huge burdens on the education and health care sectors.
"If we maintain the present family planning policy, China will see its labour source shrink quickly and lose its comparative advantage for economic development."
He suggested that authorities relax the rigid one-child policy and adopt a two-child policy, with the proviso that only women 28 or older be allowed to give birth to a second child. He said the proposal should be phased in over the next decade.
The family planning policy does allow for some exceptions to the one-child rule. Urban parents who are both only children can have a second baby, as can rural couples whose first child is a girl. And in some regions, families belonging to ethnic minorities can have two or more children.
But in the eyes of the mainland's top officials, reining in population numbers is still the priority.
"We continue to face the problem of too many people and must deal with it over a long time," Zhang Weiqing , director of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, was quoted by the China News Service as saying.
Commission vice-director Wang Guoqiang told a forum at Peking University last weekend the policy would stay in place for the next five years.
"The government's thinking differs from that of academics. We believe the situation is different in different parts of the country. Shanghai saw its population decline over the past 10 years while in middle and western regions the fertility rate is high," Mr Wang said. "We must be aware that the low fertility rate does not mean people do not desire to have more children. Farmers still want to have children because they don't enjoy any social security."