The National Health and Family Planning Commission announced on July 10 that it was considering whether to allow all couples to have a second child, which is a welcome move even though the top family planning body has not decided on any timetable.
However, there has been no significant change in people's desire to have two children even after family planning rules were changed to allow couples in which one is an only child to have a second child. This suggests that even if the authorities allow all couples to have a second child, the increase in the birth rate would still be limited.
Recent years' statistics show the birth rate continues to be sluggish. This suggests China is likely to remain in the "low fertility trap" irrespective of the authorities easing the overall family planning policy. Perhaps the main reason even eligible couples don't want to have a second child is the rising costs of raising and educating a child. The falling birth rate, therefore, should draw the attention of the authorities.
Last year, the country's young population - from newborns to 14-year-olds - accounted for only 16.5 per cent of the total, which is lower than the world average of 26 per cent and similar to that of the developed countries.
According to existing family planning rules, people eligible to have a second child add up to 11 million. A sample survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics last year showed 43 per cent of the eligible people plan to have a second child. But the National Health and Family Planning Commission's special survey at the beginning of this year showed only 39.6 per cent of them plan to have a second child, which indicates the waning desire of the eligible population to have a second child.
Till the end of this May, 1.45 million couples nationwide had applied to have a second child, and the applications of more than 1.39 million were approved. But that does not necessarily mean all the couples that got the approval will actually have a second child.
This is to say China should ease the overall family planning policy, because there is no fear of a population explosion. China is the only country that has such a family planning policy, and it has resulted in an unbalanced population. In particular, the rapidly aging population has raised concerns over eldercare.
The news that scholar Qian Liqun and his wife have decided to move into a nursing house has drawn wide public attention. The 76-year-old former Peking University professor and his wife both are in poor health, and require support and special care. But many senior citizens who have children, too, need the shelter of old-age homes because they are "empty-nest" families (for their offspring don't live with them). They have health problems or have lost their spouses. Since the demand for and importance of institutional old-age support are bound to increase, the authorities have no choice but to accord it priority.
The rapidly aging population will also throw up other challenges such as senile, "empty-nest" and seriously ill senior citizens who need special care but cannot afford to pay for it. So, the authorities have to realise that welfare funds for old-age support will be the most important livelihood investment in China.
The idea should be to socialize the old-age support system. The continuing low birth rate means a disproportionately high number of senior citizens will need institutional old-age care. By easing the family planning policy and encouraging couples to have a second child, however, the authorities could lighten the burden of old-age support on the government.
We have to realise that a higher birth rate will bring more opportunities than challenges, and to deal with the new situation, relevant social policies have to be changed.
The author is a professor at the Population Research Institute of Peking University.