China's Lifestyle Choice

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Carol Yang is convinced she has it all. Her mother isn't so sure. True, Yang has a job at an international public relations firm and is married to a loving husband. But Yang doesn't have any children, and her mother worries about that. "She thinks that I'm not a complete woman if I don't have kids," says Yang, 33, a manager in Shanghai. "But I tell her that times have changed and that children are no longer the measure of a successful woman."

Yang's attitude should hearten China's womb police, who have spent two decades attempting to control the nation's population. They have succeeded remarkably well. Today the average Chinese woman has two children, compared with six 30 years ago. "For all the bad press, China has achieved the impossible," says Sven Burmester, the U.N. Population Fund representative in Beijing. "The country has solved its population problem."

That may be, but it has been replaced with a host of new ones. China's population will actually start declining in 2042, according to U.N. projections. In China's cities, the one-child policy has morphed into a no-child philosophy. In Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, the population would be shrinking if not for an influx of migrants from the countryside. The news has stirred China's usually torpid parliament, which has proposed amending the one-child policy this summer so that some urban couples can have a second child. Each province would decide which birth-control procedures best suit its circumstances. "A one-size-fits-all family-planning policy just doesn't work," says Zhao Baige, a director-general at the State Family Planning Commission.

In the cities, the need to tweak the old policy is urgent. The coddled offspring of the one-child policy are reaching adulthood, and many show little sense of family obligation. "They're rebelling against all sense of family," says sociologist Li Yinhe. In a once unthinkable break with Confucian tradition, many refuse to care for their elders. China's graying population is expected to peak in 2040, and there is no mechanism in place to finance its welfare.

Moreover, those young men who are interested in starting a family don't find it easy. Two decades of infanticide and sex-based abortions have drastically skewed the nation's gender balance. There are now 117 boys born for every 100 girls. "Every girl I meet has already had several marriage offers," says Gong Min, 24, a computer salesman. In some rural areas, a trade in abducted brides is burgeoning. Last year 110,000 women were freed during a crackdown on human trafficking, but most will never be found. "When we started our family-planning policy 20 years ago, we had no idea of the social problems that would follow," concedes the State Family Planning Commission's Zhao.

Actually, the one-child policy has never been as rigorous as some outside China have thought. Ethnic minorities like Tibetans, for example, have never had any limits imposed on family. But the new law may combat at least one aspect of the old policy--the corruption that accompanies it. In villages, officials slap fines on citizens with extra children and share profits with doctors who push patients to get sterilized. By bringing decisions closer to the grass-roots, Beijing hopes to eliminate graft.

But none of this addresses larger issues. Officials contend that infanticide and abortions of females will decrease if families are allowed to have more children, though most city folk are already happy enough to have girls. "Frankly, I trust a girl to respect her family more," says Jin Guoyang, 35, an accountant with a mischievous seven-year-old boy. For those like Carol Yang, the decision to have children is not a matter of Confucian duty but a "personal lifestyle choice." So China will soon be faced with a First World problem--a declining fertility rate combined with a rapidly aging population. "Instead of tinkering with family-planning policy, China needs to tackle its social-welfare system," says a Peking University professor. "We need to figure out who is going to take care of our parents and grandparents." Better start soon.