Officially, the [Chinese] government remains committed to the one-child policy. But it also commissioned feasibility studies last year on what would happen should it eliminate the policy or do nothing. An official with the National Population and Family Planning Commission said privately that the agency is looking at ways to refine the limit without getting rid of it.
A people shortage may seem unlikely in a country of 1.3 billion, the most in the world. The concern, though, is not with the overall number. Rather, as the population shrinks, which is projected to begin in about 15 years, China may find itself with the wrong mix of people: too few young workers to support an aging population.
It is a combination that could slow or, in a worst-case scenario, even reverse China's surging economic growth. The government and families will have to tap savings to care for the elderly, reducing funds for investment and driving up interest rates. At the same time, labor costs probably will rise as the work force shrinks and squeeze out some industries.
In a survey of 18,638 women in Dafeng and six other counties in Jiangsu province, 69 percent of those eligible to have a second child said they would stop at one, with economics being the major factor. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences survey did not calculate a margin of error.
"Government control is no longer necessary to maintain low fertility," Zheng Zhenzhen, who headed the study, wrote in the November issue of Asian Population Studies magazine. "A carefully planned relaxation of the birth-control policy in China is unlikely to lead to an unwanted baby boom."
Family size has dropped dramatically since the 1970s, when the average Chinese woman had five to six children. Today, China's fertility rate is 1.5 children per woman. Most families have just one, but exceptions allow multiple children for ethnic minorities and a second one for rural families whose first baby is a girl.
If that fertility rate holds, China's population will peak at 1.4 billion in 2026 and then start shrinking, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By the end of this century, China's population would be cut almost in half to 750 million, according to a model developed by Wang Feng, a demographer at the University of California, Irvine.
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