When Yi Fuxian spoke out against China’s one-child policy three years ago, he says local officials in his home town in Hunan called him a “national traitor.” On his latest visit, they bought him lunch.
“At first only Chinese peasants were on my side, now an increasing number of Chinese intellectuals are with me,” Yi, 43, now a University of Wisconsin scientist, said in an interview in Beijing. He gave 23 talks at universities and forums in China in May and June opposing the policy. Yi Qiming, the Tangwan township head, declined to comment on the lunch.
The Communist Party is tolerating debate on the policy after the alleged forced abortion of a seven-month-old fetus sparked a public outcry and as the government prepares for a once-in-a-decade leadership handover. The population controls risk restraining China’s economic growth as the nation ages and the labor force shrinks.
“His experience in China showed that Chinese society is becoming more open to such debates,” said Peng Xizhe, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai and a vice president of the China Population Association, a research agency. “The consensus is building up now among the Chinese general public and researchers that the policy needs change -- the quicker the better.”
After more than three-decades of strict birth control, the world’s most populous country is reporting labor shortages in coastal areas, insufficient pension funds and school closures. Ministry of Education data showed 257,140 primary schools at the end of 2010, down from 491,273 in 2001.
The slowing supply of young laborers is contributing to wage growth, with migrant workers’ average pay rising 21 percent to 2,049 yuan ($322) a month in 2011, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
At the same time, officials are trying to reverse an economic slowdown. The benchmark Shanghai Composite index fell to a five-month low today after Citigroup Inc. cut its forecast for the nation’s growth this year to 7.8 percent from a previous estimate of 8.1 percent.
In his annual report to lawmakers in March, Premier Wen Jiabao said that the nation will continue to keep its birth rate low. Cai Yong, a fellow at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said this year that a “sudden U-turn” is unlikely.
China’s latest census showed that people age 60 and older accounted for 13.3 percent of the population in 2010, 2.9 percentage points higher than in 2000. Children age 14 and under were 16.6 percent of the total, down 6.3 points.
The policy is “God-awful” and will change the proportion of elderly people to workers so rapidly over the next 20 years that the nation won’t be able to sustain current growth levels, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told students at Florida State University on Feb. 6, according to an official transcript.
“The one-child policy, in my view, is a suicidal measure for the whole nation,” the activist Yi said in the June 20 interview, adding that he’s mailed about 5,000 copies of his book opposing the measures to Chinese officials and lawmakers. “The government should immediately stop the one-child policy to encourage child birth. But I know I am a bit wishful on that.”
The western city of Ankang this month suspended three officials as part of an investigation into claims they forced Feng Jianmei, 23, to abort her seven-month-old fetus. The Global Times newspaper said Feng was made to do so because she couldn’t pay a 40,000 yuan fine for violating the one-child policy. Photographs of Feng in a hospital bed, the fetus alongside her, triggered public outrage.
The abortion “would have been seen as normal in the past and shows how far society has changed,” Wang Feng, the Beijing- based director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy, said last week.
In a separate case, activist Chen Guangcheng, jailed and then put under house arrest in Shandong after helping villagers resist forced abortions, has moved to the U.S. after appealing for American help during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Beijing in April.
Yi, who works in the obstetrics and gynecology department of the university in Madison, said that only two of his 25 planned lectures were canceled: one in Shandong and another scheduled for June 3, the eve of the anniversary of the government’s 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
China already allows exceptions to the policy, such as permitting rural families to have a second child if the first is a girl. Couples in some regions are allowed a second child if both parents are single children. Minority ethnic groups are excluded from the restriction. Those who can afford to can have a second or third baby by paying a fine.
Implemented to alleviate poverty, the restriction on family size will cut the number of 15- to 24-year-olds, the mainstay of factories that drove growth for two decades, by 27 percent to 164 million by 2025, according to United Nations estimates.
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