Singapore: China’s population laboratory experiment

In recent years, fears have grown that China may lose its demographic advantage as the population bulge shifts inexorably towards the aged after three decades of its draconian one-child policy, leaving the country with what is expected to be a static working-age population supporting a vast elderly cohort by 2040.

Pic: AP.

According to government estimates, those aged 60 or more will reach 216 million in China by 2015, accounting for 16.7 percent of the population. That has raised questions whether it is time to reverse the one-child policy, which according to official figures has kept an astonishing 300 million children – a population the size of the entire Eurozone – from being born since it was instituted in 1979.

It is unlikely that the government will revoke the policy, planners say, although Beijing in recent years has allowed some regions to relax controls. In some cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, local governments now allow couples two children if both the husband and wife are the only children of their parents, and in fact the one-child policy has never really effectively been carried out in the countryside, particularly in remote rural areas. It is estimated that the policy applied to 35.9 percent of the population.

In cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, however, the total fertility ratio, the number of children born to mothers of child-bearing age, has fallen to well below replacement levels, as it has in many countries across Asia including Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, presenting these countries with a quandary – eventually not enough working-age individuals to support the aged.

Many demographers say concerns over China losing its demographic dividend are best read as an early warning, if not an exaggeration, and that Beijing could reconsider the one-child policy at any time the situation grows more serious. But could China actually reverse the policy? The experience of many nations across Asia suggests it may not be that easy, and that the pressures of urbanization and modernization may prove more powerful than the urge to procreate. Thus perhaps China should regard Singapore as its laboratory model, as it has in a variety of other social experiences that have not worked out by any means.

Singapore, of course, is not alone, although it has been perhaps most assertive in attempting social engineering, after decades in which former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew sought equally aggressively to limit the island republic’s population with the so-called “Stop at two” campaign, including tax and other disincentives to keep the population in check. The South Korean government has offered cash gifts and incentive to families to have more babies. Russia is giving away free refrigerators and other gifts to families. In Japan in 2012, the toiletries company Unicharm said sales of its adult diapers slightly surpassed baby diapers for the first time since the company moved into the elderly market in 1987.

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