The government of China this week further relaxed its one-child policy to allow almost all couples to have two children. Previous relaxations had meant that only about one-third of the population was subject to the one-child limit. Members of ethnic minorities generally continue to have no limit placed upon them.
One reason for the relaxation is that the percentage of China’s population who are elderly is rapidly increasing. This combined with a decreasing percentage of the population participating in the workforce poses tremendous challenges to economic growth and the funding of government entitlement programs.
China’s draconian approach to reproduction has been rightly criticised on human rights grounds — notwithstanding the fact that it was accompanied by the provision of family planning and educational programmes. However, people should remember the Chinese government’s long history of desperately seeking to feed the country’s enormous population with very limited resources. Widespread starvation has occurred within the memory of many living today. China’s approach reflects its history and governing system.
Many other countries have experienced significant decreases in fertility rates without the use of punitive fines and forced abortions and sterilization. All that is required to reduce fertility is to provide people with means of avoiding pregnancy — appropriate and affordable contraception methods — together with education about their benefits, such as high child-survival rates and greater access for women to education and employment.
The government of China should receive credit for its early understanding of the environmental and sustainability challenges of population growth in a resource-constrained context. China is prospering while many countries that have much higher birth rates are not.
Addressing the issues associated with an increased percentage of the population who are elderly indeed is a challenge, but one that is much more manageable than tackling climate change, mass extinction and resource depletion, all of which stem from our population growth.