On population scale of social development
By Li Xing (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-18 08:14

In 1974, 25-year-old Sun Hongchun married Chu Wenfa, the 10th child in an extended family of some 60 members in Shandong province. Sun would hear her mother-in-law - whose generation of women had an average of 12 births - complain about how hard her life was with so many children.

Not wanting to go through her mother-in-law's experience, Sun decided to have fewer children. The idea had begun circulating in the mid-1970s. Sun got her fallopian tubes tied after giving birth to her second child. Chu has a younger sibling, and together the 11 brothers and sisters had 36 children, or 3.2 children per family.

Those children are grown up now, and most of them are married. Only five of them have two children each, with 30 of them opting for only one child, with an average of 1.1 children per family. Sun's son is yet to get married.

The story of the Chu family mirrors the dramatic changes Chinese families have undergone in the past 30 years. China has been able to slow down its population growth from a base of more than 800 million, with 5.8 children per woman of childbearing age, to a manageable rate of 1.8 children. It has reduced the low infant mortality rate, too.

Although China's population has increased by 500 million since 1978, it took four more years than originally calculated for the population to reach 1.3 billion. Those four years were crucial for reducing the tremendous pressure on natural resources and the environment, for stimulating economic development and social growth, and for enabling most people to move out of poverty, Li Bin, minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission, said at a recent forum on reform and population development in the past three decades.

The number of people living in poverty was reduced from 250 million in 1978 to 15 million last year. People above 15 years of age have an average of 8.5 years of schooling, three years more than in 1978. China's human development index, according to the United Nations calculation, rose from 105 in the world in 1990 up to 81 in 2007.

After childbirth, new mothers in China are traditionally fed chicken eggs to regain strength. Sun said her mother-in-law could afford to get only two eggs after giving birth. Sun got about 200 eggs in the first month after giving birth. Her children's generation can enjoy a wider variety of food and get ample help from mothers-in-law and/or nannies.

China's determination to implement family planning as a national policy did not come easily. In 1957, the very idea was brandished as an "anti-Party" and "anti-socialist" tool from pre-1949 China because it followed the population theory of Thomas Malthus.

 Sun Hongchun (left) and her husband Chu Wenfa (fourth from left) in a family photo celebrating the wedding of their nephew in late 1998. [Courtesy of Sun Hongfeng]

That same year, the country's leading economist Ma Yinchu (1882-1982) was forced to step down as president of Peking University because he had proposed a series of family planning measures, including delaying marriages, promoting contraceptives and encouraging a family to have only two children. Ma had to endure severe political persecution for his views, too.

But by 1978, scholars began to review many developmental issues, including the family planning that Ma had proposed two decades earlier. Family planning was put high on the reform agenda. Ma was vindicated seven months after reform and opening up became the key guidelines of economic and social development. Ma was 97 years old then.

A July 25, 1979, Xinhua report said Li Gui, deputy head of the CPC's United Front Work Department, visited Ma and told him: "Reality has proven that your new population theory and proposal on birth control is correct. The Party will clear your name." Ma's response was: "Twenty years ago, the population was not that big, but today it is already too big. We must push (economic) production faster."

Two months later, the CPC issued an open letter to all Party and Communist Youth League members, exhorting them to have only one child. It said China's large population that had swelled by 430 million in the 30 years after the founding of New China was a big hurdle in the country's efforts to modernize and lift its people out of poverty.

"Rapid population growth would create problems for education and employment, cause excessive consumption of natural resources such as energy, water and forestry and aggravate environmental pollution."

Three years later, family planning was written into the Constitution as a basic national policy. But that was only the first step toward making family planning a reality because the idea contradicted the centuries-old tradition of preserving family lineage. The implementation of family planning has been fraught with twists and turns; it still faces tremendous challenges. As the reform continues and the low population growth stabilizes, today's population-control efforts are more focused on development of human resources and services.

Wen Zhanshan, 66, wrote posters to promote family planning in a suburb of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang province, for more than 20 years and saw the change of tone in the message. One of the first posters he created in 1980 read: "It is better for a couple to have only one child." They were plastered on the walls of his village.

A retiree, Wen says he still feels embarrassed because some of his posters sounded quite harsh, like: "It is better to breed more pigs than children." Nowadays posters promoting family planning have a different tone, he said, citing the example of "Our mother earth is too tired to support too many children."

Ma Guiling, 55, a family planning worker in Jidong county in Heilongjiang, recalled encountering a lot of resistance from her neighbors in the 1980s when she used to go from door to door to deliver contraceptives and convince women with two children to get their fallopian tubes tied. She also used to collect fines from households with more than two children.

As population growth slowed down in the early 1990s, the government began highlighting services for families and women of reproductive age such as helping one-daughter families and upgrading healthcare services for pregnant women and infants.

And gradually, the traditional concept of big families began changing. Ma Guiling now sees young couples in her village leave their parents to live separately. She has received women who complained that they neither had the money nor the energy to raise more children.

But Ma Guiling's workload has doubled because she has to take care of some of the children and parents that migrant workers have left behind in the village. Ma's heavier responsibilities reflect the pressure of population on the country.

The country's population is estimated to reach 1.5 billion by 2033. The number of people of working age (15 to 64 years) will peak at 990 million in 2016. But the number of people over 60 is expected to rise to 162.4 million in 2020, and 320 million in the 2040s, which means an aging population of more than 20 percent.

As family planning chief Li Bin said recently, the country has to maintain "a proper fertility rate, one that is conducive to balanced population growth in harmony with economic and social development".

Xu Minghui of Heilongjiang Daily and Sun Hongfen of the Muping Population and Family Planning Bureau in Shandong province contributed to the story

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