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Researchers Urge China to Relax Its One-Child Family Planning Policy

A new report suggests that China's family-planning regulation is out of date 25 years after the country implemented its one-child policy. The policy aimed to slow the birth rate in the world's most populous country, and the government claims it has helped China's rapid economic growth. But as living standards improve, surveys say many parents would welcome a relaxation of the policy. Critics also say the side effects of the policy pose serious problems for the country.

At Chaoyang amusement park in China's capital of Beijing, parents and their children enjoy warm weather. Some are having picnics on the grass, while others take the rides available at the park. A 32-year-old engineer, Ling Ping, is relaxing with her son. She wishes the seven-year-old could have a sister to play with.

"I would like to have one more child. I have one son, so I wish I could have a daughter. Now I feel we're still missing something … two children are better, it will be nicer if he has a friend, he plays alone at home," she said. "I have one brother and sister, when we're kids it was so fun to play together, and we took care of each other."

But Mrs. Ling's son is unlikely to ever have a sister. Under the country's family planning policy, most couples can have only one child.

However, a new report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in the United States, argues that China, now more open and prosperous than it was when the policy was introduced in the late 70's, should relax its one-child rule.

The Chinese government implemented the rule after decades of rapid population growth, and few adjustments have been made over the years. The policy has helped slow population growth.

Critics, however, say the strict policy has led to many social problems. Forced sterilization and abortions are commonplace, especially in rural areas, where local Communist Party officials take extreme measures to meet mandated population targets.

A growing problem is sex-selective abortion. Traditionally in China, sons are preferred over daughters. Because of the one-child policy, many pregnant women have abortions if tests show they are having a girl. Worse, some baby girls receive such poor care they die, or they are abandoned.

Government statistics say that there are 117 baby boys in China for every 100 girls. Experts worry that this could have dangerous social consequences, when those baby boys grow up and have no hope of marrying.

Therese Hesketh is a senior lecturer with the Institute of Child Health in Britain. She is one of the co-writers of the new report on the effects of the one-child. She says it has long-term economic implications, particularly because China's weak social welfare system means adult children must care for their elderly parents.

"Care for the elderly is a major issue, in fact even more than sex ratio [imbalance]. Especially in the rural area, it will be a problem," said Ms. Hesketh. "It is a big issue already … smaller families with two children have to care for four grandparents, financially, it is becoming a burden."

However, despite these problems, experts believe China is unlikely to change the one-child policy anytime soon. China says it has a population of 1.3 billion, and the government wants to make sure it is below 1.4 billion in 2010. Beijing leaders think any changes that would compromise this goal might threaten economic growth and stability.

But the authors of the study say the country's economic growth probably means the policy no longer is needed. In a trend seen in other countries in Asia over the past decades, as China's economy improves, most couples voluntarily opt to have fewer children.

"If the policy is lifted tomorrow I think there would not be a population explosion, people won't all go mad and suddenly have six children" added Ms. Hesketh. "If the Chinese said we will no longer penalize people for having more than two children, it wouldn't be hundreds and thousands, millions of people wanting three kids. It's a very strong sense now in China that if you want to be wealthy, if you want to do good for your children, large families aren't a good thing. Even in rural areas, they can't afford to have more than two children."

Despite the criticism, both at home and abroad, China is sticking by the one-child policy. To strengthen it, the government has begun offering economic incentives to families with fewer children in poverty-stricken areas. It also initiated a campaign called "caring for girls" to promote gender equality and eliminate discrimination against girls - aimed at correcting the gender imbalance, while still adhering to the population policy.