China's strict family-planning policy of limiting parents to one child has made its population growth rate one of the lowest in the developing world.  Experts say the policy is also leading to serious social and economic problems in the world's most populous nation. In this report, part of a VOA series on global population trends, VOA's Heda Bayron in Hong Kong examines the effects of the one-child policy.

Four days after Mrs. Yao gave birth in October, local officials descended on the Yao household in China's Fujian province and dragged her and her husband to a hospital. There, the couple was forced to undergo sterilization.

Mr. Yao, 31, is angry at the heavy-handed action.

"My wife just had a 4 1/2 kilogram baby four days earlier. It is wrong to ask her to do another operation," he said.  "At least wait until six months when she recovered. What they have done was very cruel."

The Yao's mistake, as far as the government was concerned, was having a forbidden second child. Mrs. Yao already had one son from a previous marriage.

China implemented the one-child policy more than a quarter-century ago to prevent a population explosion at a time when the country was reeling from leader Mao Zedong's disastrous economic experiments in the 1960s.

Women were forced to undergo abortions and sterilization. Couples who had more than one child faced economic penalties.

The result: a population growth rate today of .6 percent a year, one of the lowest in the developing world and near the level seen in some wealthy countries.

The government says the policy has helped to usher in rapid economic development.  Without it, Beijing estimates there would have been 400 million more Chinese than today's 1.3 billion, a huge additional strain on resources. 

Despite often-draconian enforcement, Delia Davin of Leeds University in England, who has studied the one-child policy, says it can be credited with improving the lives of many Chinese.

"I do believe that the limit in population growth has also been associated with rising education levels, particularly for girls, and also rising standards of living for smaller families," he noted.

But Davin and other population experts say the policy has also created serious problems.

In less than 30 years, China's population is expected to peak at 1.5 billion, and then start to shrink. By then, 20 percent of the population will be over age 65, compared with seven percent at present.

Like many countries, China will have to figure out how to care for this growing number of elderly people, while adapting to a shrinking number of young workers. 

Wang Feng, an expert on Chinese population issues at the University of California - Irvine, says a smaller work force could be disastrous to the economy.

"The increase of labor force supply will stop by 2013 and will start instead to decline," he noted.  "So for the Chinese economy, although unemployment is a concern, continued supply of young labor, skilled labor, is one of the engines of China's success in the global economy."

Another effect of the one-child policy, in a society that values sons over daughters, has been to encourage sex-selective abortion and female infanticide.  By 2020, there will be about 40 million Chinese men unable to marry, because too few girls will have been born.

Sociologists say that could trigger aggressive behavior among frustrated bachelors, including kidnapping and trafficking in women.

Experts say it is not too late for China to reverse the trend, but Wang says the government must act now.

"With the population it takes more than 20 years to have the future labor, and more than 60 years to have the future elderly," he explained.  "Whatever is going to happen will not be reversed in a short period of time, but because it's a long process, people don't realize that things [have] to be done quickly."

The government has started to address the situation.  One method being tried is a program to change attitudes toward girls.

Some Chinese academics suggest easing the one-child policy to rejuvenate a graying society, but that appears unlikely anytime soon. The Population Ministry says the policy will continue, with the aim of holding the population to 1.37 billion in 2010.

However, modernization is bringing changes to Chinese thinking, and there are indications that ending the one-child policy would not necessarily lead to a baby boom.

Yao of Fujian Province says he and his wife never wanted more children.

He says they will put all their efforts into their one child. He says there is no need to have lots of kids, because they do not live in the country, where children are needed as farmhands. He says many people in his city, where the economy is doing well, would volunteer for sterilization after one or two children.

Surveys among young urban Chinese show many prefer to have only one child, because of the cost of raising children and because of their busy new lifestyles. Younger Chinese appear to be following the pattern set in Japan, Singapore, and many other countries around the world, the wealthier they become, the fewer children they want to have.