BEIJING>> China will maintain the strict family planning policy it imposed a generation ago to keep the birth rate low and the economy growing, President Hu Jintao said in remarks before new census data are released.
His comments mirror other officials’ statements in recent months but confirm no major reforms are pending on the so-called one-child policy introduced in 1980 as a temporary measure to curb surging population growth.
China has the world’s largest population and credits its family planning limits with preventing 400 million additional births and helping break a traditional preference for large families that had perpetuated poverty. But there are serious concerns about the policy’s problematic side effects, such as too few girls and a rapidly aging population.
Data on the first census in 10 years are due to be released publicly Thursday. Preliminary numbers based on a sample survey showed China had 1.34 billion people last year and growth had slowed to its lowest rate in decades.
A Xinhua News Agency report Wednesday said Hu told other top communist leaders on Tuesday that the policy — which limits most urban couples to one child and rural families to two — should be maintained.
Xinhua also reported improvements in the current policy were planned, but no birth rate target or other specific details were given.
There has been growing speculation among Chinese media, experts and ordinary people about whether the government would relax the policy soon, allowing more people to have two children.
Advocates of loosening the family planning regulations had hoped 2011 might offer a unique window of opportunity because it marks the beginning of a new five-year plan, when all arms of the government revamp their policy roadmap for the years ahead.
The family planning policy has curbed China’s population growth but brought new problems, such as an expanding elderly population that demographers say will be increasingly hard to support as the young labor force shrinks.
Xinhua said Hu briefly touched on these concerns, saying that social security and services for the elderly should be improved and he called on officials to formulate strategies to cope with the aging population.
The policy is also blamed for the country’s skewed sex ratio. Chinese families with a strong preference for boys sometimes resort to aborting female fetuses. Demographers worry the imbalance will make it hard for men to find wives and could fuel the trafficking of women and children as brides.
The male-female ratio at birth in China is about 119 males to 100 females, with the gap as high as 130 males for every 100 females in some provinces. In industrialized countries, the ratio is 107 to 100.
Hu said "problems concerning the birth sex ratio should be addressed, and gender equity efforts enhanced," Xinhua reported.
China’s population growth has been contracting since 1987 and the U.S. Census Bureau has projected it will peak at slightly less than 1.4 billion in 2026.
Government statistics showed China recorded 12.13 births per thousand people in 2009, which is comparable to birth rates in the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark.
It is above the very low birth rates of around 7 or 8 per thousand found in countries like Japan and Italy that have driven governments to encourage more births through subsidies. But it is well below the roughly 23 births per thousand that the United Nations reports for India, which is expected to takeover China as the world’s most populous nation by 2025.