Published: Sunday 30 November 1997

-- Family planning restrictions in some urban areas of China have been eased allowing many of the parents of the one-child policy to have two children. The two-child rule, envisioned years ago, but phased in quietly in selected areas only recently, is designed to tackle a new problem in China: too few babies, particularly in Shanghai -- China's most-developed city. The one-child policy has reduced fertility and has led to outright population declines for three years in a row.

Peasant families in China have long been allowed to bear a second child which has resulted in the alarming rise of the rural population. But the one-child policy has achieved statistical wonders. In one generation, birth rates have plunged below the level many western countries reached after a century of economic development. At an average of 1.9 children per mother, Chinese women give birth to no more often than women in France or Italy, where populations are shrinking.

This decline has contributed to a new demographic time bomb: rapid ageing. Experts predict that one in four Chinese will be elderly by the year 2020, a rare burden for a low income economy country. The greying problem is acute in leading cities, where birth-rates aren't much above one child per mother. Low fertility has already begun to crimp the work force at a time when a huge number of people are retiring.

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