One County Provides Preview Of China's Looming Aging Crisis
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China's population is expected to peak in about 10 years and then begin to decline. Demographers say it's time to end decades of strict population controls, including the country's one-child policy. The government has started to allow some couples to have two children, but the long-term effects of China's one-child policy are already being felt. NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to a part of China where that's the case, an area that pioneered the policy.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Children voices ring out from a music class at an elementary school in Rudong County. It sits on China's east coast just north of where the Yangtze River empties into the East China Sea. The county is known throughout China for its good schools, but school principal Miao Boquan says there aren't many of them left.
MIAO BOQUAN: (Through interpreter) There used to be 14 schools in this township, one in every village. Now we are the only remaining elementary school. All the others have been merged.
KUHN: There are 460 students at Miao's school, about half the number a decade ago. Many of the students' parents have gone to work in the cities. They're not entitled to education or any welfare benefits there, so they leave their children in the countryside in the care of their grandparents. Miao says that this causes developmental problems for some kids.
BOQUAN: (Through translator) The grandparents' love is a doting love. They don't know how to love them. They don't know what to give them or talk to them about.
KUHN: Meanwhile, in a nearby town in Rudong County, senior citizens sit down to dinner at their government-funded retirement home. They're bundled up against the cold, as there's no heat in winter here. Most of them have no income or children to support them. In recent years, this town went from having one such facility having five. Fifty-eight-year-old resident He Jingming has had polio since childhood. He never married. Before retiring he collected scrap for recycling. He says he's grateful to be here.
HE JINGMING: (Speaking foreign language).
KUHN: "We have it easy here," He says, smiling. "We get to eat without having to do any work. The state looks after us and is good to us. Our director here speaks humbly to us and would never curse at us." He glances at the director, Chen Jieru. Chen used to work as the Communist Party secretary of a nearby village. Beginning in the 1960s, Rudong County launched a family planning pilot program, a decade before China's one-child policy began in 1979. Chen remembers that he spent a lot of time implementing the program, which meant being on the lookout for pregnant women.
CHEN JIERU: (Through interpreter) Having a second child wasn't allowed, so we had to work on them and persuade them to have an abortion. At the time, our work as a village cadre revolved around women's big bellies.
KUHN: By one estimate, 15 years from now, 60 percent of Rudong County residents will be 60 years or older. But Chen Youhua, a Nanjing University sociologist, who grew up in Rudong County, says that the family planning policy is not the only reason the county is aging so quickly.
CHEN YOUHUA: (Through interpreter) Another reason is that our young people go elsewhere to seek their education and few of them return. The third is that with improvements in health, people are living longer.
KUHN: In other words, Rudong County's population would shrink anyway without the one-child policy. The policy just speeds it up a bit. Chen Youhua and other experts say that if China is to avoid a national crisis it needs to scrap the one-child policy immediately and get Chinese citizens to make more babies, but China admits this could be difficult.
YOUHUA: (Through interpreter) Only yesterday China was emphasizing the advantages of the one-child policy. To encourage people the next day to have children is a 180-degree reversal.
KUHN: And then he says it could be hard for both officials and ordinary citizens to accept. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.