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The Chinese zodiac is a classification scheme that assigns 12 animals (rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig) and their attributes to each year in a repeated 12-year cycle. Like constellations in Western countries, the zodiac is very popular in China and many other Asian nations.
Such zodiac variations have special significance in China and sometimes are used to symbolize important policy adjustments. In the Chinese calendar, 2016 was the Year of the Monkey. In 2015, when China Post published the design of the upcoming Year of the Monkey zodiac stamps, one of the stamps depicted a mother monkey holding two little cuties. Then in October 2015, the Chinese Government eased its one-child birth control policy and allowed all couples to have two children.
The upcoming 2019 is the Year of the Pig. Early this month, when Han Meilin, designer of the Chinese zodiac stamps, unveiled the original pig stamp design in Beijing, one of the stamps showed a happy five-member pig family — two pigs and three piglets. The design has aroused huge public attention nationwide, with many people speculating a further relaxation and even total abolishment of China’s family planning policy next year.
Frankly speaking, the government should not be so optimistic about the positive effects of this policy change. According to China’s National Health Commission, the country’s total fertility rate has remained between 1.5 and 1.6 since 2000, indicating a serious lack of child births. Generally speaking, such an index should reach 2.1, the minimum level to ensure that China’s population will not shrink. Moreover, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics, about 17.23 million babies were born in China in 2017, 630,000 fewer than in 2016. This means that the relaxation of previous restrictions in 2015 have actually not encouraged more births.
Some experts predict that China’s population will irreversibly decrease even with more stimulation measures. One reason of low fertility rate in China is the quick aging of its population. The number of people aged 60 or above in the country surpassed 240 million in 2017, accounting for 17.3 percent of the total population. The rate may climax to 30 percent by the middle of this century. Meanwhile, the number of women of childbearing age in China — between 18 and 49 — is also falling sharply by 5.2 million every year.
Economic pressure is also one of the main factors that prevents couples from having a second child in China. Modern society is demanding and it is not easy for young couples in cities to make a decent living under the great pressure of skyrocketing housing prices, expensive medical fees, the difficulty of affording babysitters, the fierce competition to secure a seat in public schools for their children and the burden of taking care of the elderly family members. In a recent commentary published on Aug. 6, the People’s Daily Overseas Edition said that rather than shouting empty slogans and chanting big words, governments at various levels should take targeted measures such as longer maternity leave, flexible work schedules for pregnant women and young mothers, and preferential interest rate for home purchase loans to alleviate the burden on young couples and enhance their willingness to have more children.
Since it is unlikely that China’s population will rebound in the future, while taking concrete measures to stimulate fertility and slow the pace of population dwindling, the Chinese Government should also take pains to handle its aging problem and gender imbalance. China’s aging process has been among the fastest in the world, more than 30 percent of the Chinese people will be 60 years old or above by the middle of this century. So it is urgent for policymakers to think seriously about retirement pensions, the adjustments of retirement ages, re-employment of those aged but healthy people beyond retirement ages and other related issues.
Gender imbalance is also an important question which cannot be ignored. In 1979, the one-child policy was introduced to control China’s exploding population. As a double-edged sword, it has also caused serious gender imbalance in the country. At the end of 2017, China had 32.66 million more males than females. Since only one child was allowed for each urban family between 1979 and 2015, many couples chose the gender of their offspring by abortion. It is obvious that the introduction of second-child policy and possible abolishment of family control will reduce China’s gender imbalance in the future.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)