Aged to put burn on "one child" policy


THERE is a "little emperor" living in an apartment near us. He's about nine years old, somewhat overweight and clearly a bit spoiled. His name is Fang. He is the object of the full time attention of his parents and grandparents, who all live together in the flat and fuss over him endlessly.

"Little emperor" or xiaowangdi, is the name Chinese people give to the pampered only child in modern Chinese families, since a one child only rule was introduced and rigidly enforced, at least in the cities, in the early 1980s to keep population growth under control.

The effects of this policy are now becoming evident. In school our little neighbour learns the words for "brother" and "sister", and "aunt" and "uncle", but for him and the coming generation of Chinese people, the terms have little meaning. The modern urban adolescents have no brothers or sisters they don't know what it is to share with or fight with siblings, and their children will never know what it is to have an aunt or uncle.

The more horrendous side effects of this stringent population policy have been widely chronicled inside and outside China, such as the scale of female infanticide arising from the traditional Chinese family's desire to have a son.

The ultrasound scanner, manufactured in China for the last 16 years, is now widely used to find out whether a baby will be a male or female, and abortions are more common to get rid of a girl foetus so that parents will get a second chance to have a boy. The sex ratio for new born babies reached 118.5 boys for every 100 girls in 1992.

Female infants are in short supply and are more likely than males to be abandoned. Baby girls are almost invariably offered for adoption to outside countries, as the dozens of prospective Irish parents are discovering since the door was opened to the adoption of Chinese babies by the Supreme Court in Dublin earlier this year.

But some of the unforeseen problems which will face Fang and his school friends when they grow into adults are now coming into the open and are worrying Chinese sociologists as they peer into the future.

This depleted generation will have to shoulder an enormous burden in years to come that is, the support of a disproportionately high number of old people, who are living longer because of improved living standards and disease control.

According to an extraordinarily frank analysis of the dilemma just published in the Chinese journal Viewpoint an "astonishing and major change" is happening in China's population structure. China is facing no less than "the largest scale aged population boom in the history of the world".

By the end of this year, there will be 130 million people over the retirement age of 60, and they will form 9.5 per cent of the population, says Viewpoint, under the heading "A Silver Tide is Approaching". Each year the proportion of old people will increase, so that by the year 2040, when little Fang himself will be thinking of retiring, there will be one pensioner in every four people in China, a total of 374 million or 25 per cent of the population.

The health care crisis in the United States fades into insignificance compared to the scale of the problem in China. The typical family structure of 4:2:1 - the grandparents, the parents and the "little emperor" - weakens the family's ability to support elderly people.

As time goes by, the state will be hard put to come to their rescue because, according to the author's calculations, from 1996 to 2040 the number of employees who shoulder the expense of a retiree will fall from seven to two.

Already life is getting harder for old people. The market economy has meant a drop in the number of tea houses and recreational places for pensioners, some of whom, when they get ill, "will commit suicide because they lack the funds to pay for medical care".

The gap between their incomes and average wages grows steadily. For some who worked hard all their lives in state firms, the economic boom has meant only disaster. The journal discloses that "many retired employees from bankrupt and unprofitable enterprises can't get their pensions on time and some have not received their pensions for several months and have no means of support except to beg on the streets."

Our "little emperor" probably has a bright future in the market economy, but may have to support both his parents and some grandparents in later life. No wonder they fuss over him.