China's Baby Bust A dwindling birthrate and an aging populace force China to rethink its family-planning policy

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Carol yang is convinced she has it all. Her mother, steeped in a different era's values, isn't so sure. True, Yang has a cushy job at an international public relations firm, travels to exotic locales like Nepal and, most important in these divorce-prone times, is married to a loving husband. But Yang doesn't have children, and her mother worries, as mothers will. "She thinks that I'm not a complete woman if I don't have kids," says Yang, a 33-year-old general manager at Hill & Knowlton's Shanghai branch. "But I tell her that times have changed and that children are no longer the measure of a successful woman."

Such an attitude should hearten China's draconian womb police, who have spent two decades trying to control the nation's burgeoning population through any means possible. They've succeeded remarkably well. The average Chinese woman has two kids today, compared with six children 30 years ago. "For all the bad press, China has achieved the impossible," says Sven Burmester, the United Nations Population Fund representative in Beijing. "The country has solved its population problem."

But this solution has spawned a host of new problems. China's population will start declining from 2042, according to U.N. statistics. In the nation's fast-paced cities, the one-child policy has morphed into a no-child philosophy. While country folk still pine for a large family to plow the fields, city dwellers-the very people that China hopes will power its economic engine-are eschewing the delivery room altogether. In Beijing and Shanghai the population would be shrinking were it not for an influx of migrants from the countryside.

Such alarming news has shaken China's usually torpid parliament into action. This summer, the rubber-stamp body proposed amending its one-child policy so that some urban couples can have a second child. It also suggested letting each province decide how many children a family could have. "A one-size-fits-all family-planning policy doesn't work," says Zhao Baige, a director general at the State Family Planning Commission. "China is a large place with diverse citizens and diverse needs."

The need for family-planning reform is most apparent in China's cities, which are springing into the modern age with few of the usual safety nets attached. The first generation of "little Emperors," the coddled offspring of the one-child policy, are reaching adulthood, and many are showing distressingly little sense of family obligation. "They're rebelling against all concept of family," says sociologist Li Yinhe. A record high 29% of urban twenty- somethings profess little interest in marriage or children, according to a market research poll. In a once unthinkable breach of Confucian tradition, many are even refusing to care for their elders. China's graying population is estimated to peak in 2040 and the nation has no mechanism to finance its welfare.

Even those young men who are interested in starting a family are finding themselves stymied. Two decades of infanticide and sex-based abortions carried out by a populace that favors males over females has drastically skewed the nation's gender balance. There are now 117 boys born for every 100 girls, compared with a ratio of 105 to 100 globally. "Every girl I meet has already had several marriage offers," says Gong Min, a 24-year-old computer salesman from Beijing. In some rural areas, the situation has gotten so bad that a trade in abducted brides is burgeoning. Last year, 110,000 women were freed during a crackdown on human trafficking, but millions more 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 Zhao of the State Family Planning Commission. "Now we must address the consequences."

But the proposed family-planning amendment may be little more than a token gesture. In truth, the one-child policy has already been slowly dismantled, especially in rural China. Certainly, some women are still forced to abort late-term fetuses in remote rice paddies, so that family-planning officials can hew to population quotas. But, in general, most peasants are already allowed to have two children-if the first is either handicapped or a girl. Ethnic minorities like Tibetans have never had any limits on family size. And in the teeming cities, only children are themselves allowed to produce two progeny, if they marry another only child. Indeed, the bill under debate in China's National People's Congress only legalizes-and perhaps enhances-what has been de facto practice in recent years.

Still, by formalizing its family-planning policies on a national level, China hopes to combat one major problem: corruption. In villages, local officials routinely slap arbitrary fines on citizens with extra children, and share profits with doctors who push patients to get sterilized. By bringing decision-making closer to the grass-roots level, Beijing hopes to eliminate the opportunity for graft. But none of this addresses the larger problems caused by two decades of social manipulation. Ironically for a developing country, China is now faced with a decidedly First-World problem: a declining fertility rate combined with a rapidly graying 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."

In addition, merely loosening rules on urbanites isn't going to convince people like Carol Yang to suddenly go forth and procreate. "It used to be that if you didn't have kids people assumed it was because you couldn't," says Yang. "But now people realize it's your own personal lifestyle choice." That's a choice too many Chinese may now be making.