In China, signs that 1-child policy may be coming to an end

JIUQUAN, China - China could be considering relaxing its harsh one-child policy because of women like Hu Yanqin, who lives in a village at the edge of the Gobi desert.

Hu lives in the Jiuquan region in Gansu province, one of the rare places in China where those living in rural areas have been free to have two children since 1985. But even when she got married seven years ago, she knew she was going to have only one child, because it was too expensive to have more.

"Those people with two children are those who are better off," said Hu, 32, dropping her six-year-old son off at kindergarten. "The majority of people in my village only have one child."

Advocates of reforming China's one-child policy use Hu and millions like her as evidence that relaxing the law will not lead to a surge of births in the world's most populous nation.

Jiuquan has a birth rate of 8 to 9 per 1,000 people, lower than the national average of about 12 births per 1,000 people.

The policy, implemented since 1980 alongside reforms that have led to rapid economic expansion, is increasingly being seen as an impediment to growth and the harbinger of social problems.

The country's labour force, at about 930 million, will start declining in 2025 at a rate of about 10 million a year, projections show. Meanwhile, China's elderly population will hit 360 million by 2030, from about 200 million in 2013.

"If this goes on, there will be no taxpayers, no workers and no caregivers for the elderly," said Gu Baochang, a demography professor at Renmin University.

China's top statistician, Ma Jiantang, said last Friday that the country should look into "an appropriate and scientific family planning policy" after data showed that the country's working-age population, aged 15 to 59, fell for the first time.

Economists say the policy is also 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.

That has delayed the "rebalancing" of Beijing's economy toward more consumption, a step economists believe China needs to take to keep its growth going.

Expectations that Beijing will ease the restrictions, by gradually allowing couples to have two children, have been building since outgoing President Hu Jintao conspicuously dropped the phrase "maintain a low birth rate" in a work report to a Communist Party congress in November.

It was the first time in a decade that a major speech by a top leader had omitted such a reference and could signal that the new government led by Xi Jinping is leaning toward reform.

"I think that the 18th Party Congress report indicates that, and this is my personal interpretation, the one-child policy is going to be adjusted," said Ji Baocheng, a delegate to China's rubber stamp parliament who advocates change in the policy.

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