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China marks 30 years of one-child policy

Parents watch as their children play at a Beijing park on September 23, 2010. Photo courtesy: AFP.




BEIJING, Thursday 23 September 2010 (AFP) - Han Mei knew when she fell pregnant for the second time that she was facing an extortionate fine, a salary drop and even the loss of her job for having flouted China's infamous one-child policy.

With her first child, a girl, she went on maternity leave a month before the birth, which was paid for by her employer.

When she had her son she waited until the day she went into labour to stop work and paid for the caesarean section herself.

The population control law that limits many in China to one child in a bid to improve people's lives marks its own 30th birthday on Saturday, having been formally implemented in 1980.

The risks Han faced were severe. "Anyone who illegally gave birth to a second child would be punished, and the penalties would be dismissal from school, a downgrade in wages or a fine," she said.

"If you didn't have money to pay the fine, your house would be demolished or the furniture and appliances moved away by the family planning officials," the retired teacher, now 50, added.

Han, whose real name has been changed due to the sensitivity of the issue, kept her second child's existence a secret from family planning officials for four years, aided by villagers who did not betray her. Then she benefited from lax enforcement.

Many others have not been so lucky. Soon, though, China may relax the policy.

According to He Yafu, an expert who is in close contact with some of China's official demographers, authorities plan to launch pilot projects in five provinces aimed at evaluating the effects of watered-down rules.

Until now, those exempt from the law include ethnic minorities, farmers whose first child is a girl and couples where both are only children.

But in the would-be test provinces -- Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning in the northeast, Jiangsu and Zhejiang in the east -- authorities plan to let couples where just one of the adults is an only child have two kids from next year.

"Official demographers say that those five provinces have basically been determined as the first pilot provinces, and over the next five years or so it will spread to the whole of China," He said.

The move would help alleviate problems caused by the policy, such as an ageing population that is putting pressure on the nation's fast-growing economy.

According to the Office of the China National Committee on Ageing, the number of people aged 60 or over stood at 167 million in 2009, or 12.5 percent of the 1.3-billion-strong population.

Only children now face the daunting task of looking after their two parents and four grandparents in a society where much of the elderly population is still cared for by relatives.

The policy is also blamed for gender imbalance in China, where sex-specific abortions remain common. Female infanticide and the abandoning of baby girls have also been reported.

In 2005, the last year when data were made available, there were 119 boys for every 100 girls. A study earlier this year found over 24 million men of marrying age could find themselves without wives in 2020, state media said.

Graeme Smith of Sydney's University of Technology, who has researched the policy's effects in Anhui province, said it had "resulted in rural men going mad because they could not cope with the pressure of finding a bride".

Experts have warned this could fuel prostitution or trafficking, and state media has reported that since April last year authorities have freed more than 10,600 women who had been sold as brides or forced to work as prostitutes.

China's Vice Premier Li Keqiang said this week that the government would launch measures to narrow the gender gap and address problems arising from an ageing population, without giving specific details, state media reported.

He, who believes family planning should not be coercive, said the policy had created a host of other problems.

"There have been many atrocities committed during the process of enforcing the one-child policy, and most courts do not accept cases linked to family planning departments," he said.

Some women have been forced to have abortions -- some late in their pregnancy -- or sterilisations over the years, and activists who have exposed these abuses have been jailed.

Chen Guangcheng, who was jailed in 2006 after accusing officials in eastern China of forcing sterilisations or abortions on at least 7,000 women, was released this month.

Still, experts say the roughly 400 million births prevented thanks to the policy has had a huge hand in raising China's GDP per capita.

"China should take credit for being one of the few regimes to take the population issue seriously and they are certainly much better placed than India to enjoy the fruits of their increasing wealth," Smith said.

Siu Yat-ming, a demographer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said research had indicated admission rates for boys and girls in universities in Beijing and Shanghai were getting closer.

"A lot of professionals only have one child, so whether it's a girl or a boy, they will devote all their resources on them," he said.

"So in some cities, it would seem that gender equality might have been achieved," he said.


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