China’s one-child policy has prevented almost half a billion births but has turned into a demographic time bomb as the population ages, storing up huge economic and social problems for the country.
As the world’s population hits the seven billion mark, straining the earth’s resources, China can claim to have curbed its birth rate to around 1.5 children per woman since the policy was introduced in 1979.
Without the birth limits, which no other country applies as rigorously or on such a scale, the world’s most populous nation would have hundreds of millions more mouths to feed than the 1.34 billion it has now.
But from modern cities to remote villages, its implementation has involved abuses from mass sterilisation to abortions as late as eight months into the pregnancy. Baby girls have also been abandoned and killed.
Couples who defy the rule can face fines amounting to several years’ salary, have access to social services cut and even go to prison. Their so-called “black children” have no legal status in China.
But three decades on, demographers, sociologists and economists are warning of a looming crisis as China becomes the only developing country in the world to face growing old before it grows rich.
By 2050, a quarter of China’s population will be over 65, the Commission for Population and Family Planning said, compared to just nine percent today.
The upside-down pyramid–whereby a single child shoulders responsibility for two parents and four grandparents–is a major headache for the government, particularly as unemployment rises, forcing more and more people to migrate to cities for work.
Liang Zhongtang, a demographer involved in family planning, said the pressure would grow as Chinese born between 1962 and 1972 retire.
“Nearly 30 million babies were born each year during that period, compared to six or seven million each year right now, you can imagine how big the burden on the government will be,” he said.