THE PEOPLE'S WALL: The Great Wall is packed with tourists during the National Day holiday in 2009 (CHEN BOCAI)
After China published the results of its sixth national population census, Mu Guangzong, Deputy Director of the Expert Panel for Comprehensive Reform of the National Population and Family Planning Commission and professor at Peking University's Institute of Population Research, sat with Beijing Review reporter Tang Yuankai to talk about the population development tendency of China and measures that should be taken to deal with current problems.
Beijing Review: The population on China's mainland has reached 1.3397 billion, according to the sixth population census. How do you assess China's current population conditions?
Mu Guangzong: The aggregate number is just a superficial factor of population conditions. The current problems regarding China's population can all be tracked to structural imbalances. We should pay more attention to the great challenges and potential crisis behind the 1.3397 billion population.
Compared with the fifth national population census, which was conducted in 2000, the population of the Chinese mainland has not increased remarkably from the previous record of 1.29533 billion. This indicates a very important fact, that is, since the 1990s, the fertility and natural increase of the Chinese mainland population have remained at a low level and are declining. China's population has entered a stable low-fertility and low-increasing rate. The average desired number of children per Chinese household has dropped to less than two, which will make the fertility rate even lower in the future. The single child with aging parents is a unique Chinese phenomenon.
You had said the fast population increase was already under control in China. What are new problems popping up now and what measures do you think should be taken to deal with them?
The low population growth in China in the past decade resulted from both the family planning policy and changes in social and economic situations. With the cost of raising children rocketing in modern days, people born in the 1980s and 1990s are less likely to give birth. The total fertility rate now is even lower than 1.3.
Judging from the data of the latest population census, the gender imbalance in China has been reversed to a certain degree. However, as men are always regarded superior to women in traditional Chinese society, gender discrimination still exists and will not be diminished in the short term. In fact, the inequality has worsened in a way. For example, the "one-child" policy has caused a growing number of sex-selective births, and many employers prefer to hire men to women.
The best way is to build up the current population policy on the basis of the equality of men and women. Allowing all urban and rural couples to have a second child is an adjustment in accordance with both public demand and the law of population development. The policy of gender equality should be the base of the family planning policy.
As the total fertility rate of Chinese women at childbearing age is lower than 1.5, or even 1.3, China is trapped by an extremely low fertility trend. However, many people have not realized this problem due to the country's huge aggregate population. Our population problem has transformed from a quantitative problem to structural problem, from a natural problem to a policy problem and from a single problem to a complex problem.
It's very dangerous. The risks and possible cost of the extremely low fertility rate have not been fully realized by Chinese people. This situation is very likely to deteriorate if the current population policy remains. In a way, we can say growing elderly care challenges in China are closely related to the family planning policy. The government should seriously consider the strategy of encouraging moderate fertility and adjust its population policy as soon as possible in efforts to control, reduce and prevent risks and possible cost concerning population development.
What do you think China should do to deal with the rapid aging process?
Getting old before getting rich is the generally accepted statement on the current aging problem in China, but it is lopsided. In 2007, I proposed the idea of getting rich on the way to getting old and called for greater efforts to enable the aging population, especially those in rural areas, to share the achievements of economic development.
In 2009, I brought up another idea on China's aging problem—getting old before getting ready. Here, "getting ready" means setting up complete service and insurance systems for senior citizens. It also points to the imminent short supplies of young laborers despite a huge population. This results from the unbalanced age structure.
China also needs a large number of young people to create social wealth, and offer services for elders. Otherwise, in the near future, it will regret not having enough "strategic population reserves."
China's aging problems are unique and complicated due to the country's mandatory family planning policy. We have to strike a balance between policies dealing with population and aging problems as soon as possible.
The number of China's migrant population, according to the six national population census, is 261 million. What do you think this number means?
The large numbers of the migrant population and expansion of their mobility area indicate the strengthening of the social mechanism that helps turn population pressure into population vitality. They also reflect the huge power of social transformation and social development. The market, as an invisible hand, is playing an important role in solving problems involving population, resources and the environment. A harmony between population and the environment has been achieved to a certain degree.
But, how to ensure the migrant population has equal access to welfare benefits of local urban residents is another critical issue that we must work on now.