In a couple of months China’s 13th five-year plan will be sent to Communist Party meetings for approval. This plan, a Stalinist holdover of China’s old command economy, which is currently being finished by President Xi Jingping and which was discussed with Party “elders” last month, is expected to break with tradition by prioritising population growth rather than economic growth. 

According to Bloomberg, a “person familiar with the discussions” has reported that “population policies” may be emphasised over GDP for the first time in the plan. Such reports are being made against the background of a declining working age population in China (15 to 64 year olds decreased by 1.6 million last year) and a slowing Chinese economy. At the same time the country is getting older – the share of the population over 60 years old will climb from 12 percent to over a third across a 40 year period from 2010. Some are calling for an overhaul of the disastrous one-child policy as part of the national plans for the future:

“Mu Guangzong, a professor at Peking University’s Institute of Population Research, said that avoiding the same fate [as Japan] requires immediate action to loosen birth limits and strengthen the social safety net for the elderly.
‘Reform is lagging too far behind and has been too cautious,’ Mu said. ‘We must move from restricting childbirth to encouraging it as soon as possible. We must complete a thorough change of population policy.’”

Of course, as we have already reported, China has recently liberalised the one-child policy. In December 2013, couples were allowed to have a second child if either of the parents were an only child themselves. However, the boost to China’s population growth from this measure has not been as the Government had hoped. As of May, about 1.5 million couples had applied for a second child (what a horrendous invasion of your family autonomy – “applying” for a second child as if it were for a building consent), significantly below official projections of an additional 2 million births each year. (We also discussed this year, and last year, and the year before, the fact that many demographers predicted that just making larger families legal will not mean that Chinese will start to have larger families.) 

Part of the problem will be that it is hard to change a nation’s mindset to larger families when you have spent the last 35 years bombarding them with propaganda that a big family is bad, wasteful, unpatriotic and against the law. But clearly a lot of the problem is economic – having children is an expensive business, especially if you are an only child yourself and are expected to have to look after your ageing parents. As Bloomberg reports:

“The aging society is already straining the social safety net and providing another cost consideration for parents such as Wang Hongye, a 30-year-old mother from Beijing.
‘I don’t want a second child,’ said Wang, who’s concerned about providing the son she has with an apartment and nice wedding. ‘We are also under pressure to pay our own mortgage and to feed our parents as they get older.’”

So while the new five-year plan may well further liberalise the one-child policy, sources are predicting that there will also be a broader agenda unveiled including pension reform, social welfare changes and health care spending. This is hoped will encourage people to have more children as they will see that they, their children and their parents will have a safety net:

“’An adjustment to childbirth policy alone can no longer solve our profound population crisis,’ said Mu of Peking University. ‘We must accompany it with social and public policies such as senior care policies. Society should provide a safety net.’”

Whether the 13th five-year plan will prevent China’s population from shrinking in the next few decades and its “demographic dividend” drying up remains to be seen. But there is every chance that the 13th five-year plan will be the last one in which China is the most populous country in the world.

Marcus Roberts

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...