China will not consider changing its one-child policy for at least a decade for fear that a population surge could spark social and economic instability, the nation's top family planning official said in an interview published Monday.
Zhang Weiqing of the State Population and Family Planning Commission told the official China Daily newspaper that the one-child rule should be maintained for now.
"Given such a large population base, there would be major fluctuations in population growth if we abandoned the one-child rule now," he was quoted as saying. "It would cause serious problems and add extra pressure on social and economic development."
Any change in the policy would be considered only after the end of the country's next birth peak in 10 years, Zhang said. Over the next decade, nearly 200 million people are expected to enter childbearing years.
"After the new birth peak ends, we may adjust the policy if there is need," he said in the front-page story.
The policy, launched during the late 1970s, has prevented an additional 400 million births. China's population currently stands at 1.3 billion, growing 16 to 17 million annually.
The one-child limit actually applies to only a portion of the population. In general, urban couples are restricted to one while rural couples are allowed up to two if their first child is a girl. The country's often disadvantaged ethnic minorities are also exempt from these rules.
Critics say the policy has led to forced abortions, sterilizations and an imbalanced gender ratio due to a traditional preference for male heirs.
Nipping talk in the bud
Zhang's remarks, made on the sidelines of the annual legislative session and published in several local newspapers, are clearly aimed at slapping down reports that the country was considering scrapping its one-child policy.
Officially, China's stance on its family planning policy has not wavered. Last week Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated in his annual policy address to legislators that China will continue to "adhere to the current policy of family planning" in order to "keep the birthrate low."
However, Beijing's leaders have allowed more open discussion of the issue, particularly as the country continues its path of rapid economic and social change.
In recent weeks, several officials have suggested that an overhaul of the policy may be forthcoming since China has succeeded in slowing down its population growth.
Debate about potential changes has been fueled by concern over the growing burden of China's aging population. According to government figures, those aged 60 or older expected to top 200 million by 2015 and 280 million by 2025.
Zhang stressed that the emerging problems should not be blamed solely on the one-child policy and "it will be simplistic" to focus on a single approach.
Getting rid of the one-child policy now would create more problems than it would solve, he said.
Lower fertility rates have been credited with helping raise living standards and increase the country's economic growth.
Population hot potato
But demographics experts worry China's intense preoccupation with controlling its population growth has created unintended consequences as birth rates drop below normal.
Gu Baochang, professor of demographics at Renmin University, said part of the issue is that the government as well as the public regard population as a negative factor in a country's development.
"Of course, the population is still growing so they still regard population as a threat to country's future. But in fact, the growth rate is already negative," he said.
China's current average birth rate is at 1.8 children per couple, below the 2.1 rate needed for a population to replace itself.
Population officials have talked about the fear of triggering a population boom if the one-child policy were lifted, but government planners are failing to consider a low-fertility scenario, said Shanghai-based population economist Zuo Xuejin.
Zuo pointed to other Asian countries, including Japan, Korea and Singapore, where fertility rates have been steadily declining, and said he believes that China is heading in that direction as well.
"In addition to this general trend, we have a very restrictive fertility control policy," he said. "It will become a problem in the future."