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China eases rules on one child policy

China has relaxed its controversial one-child policy, resulting in fewer fines for couples who decided to have two or more children, the municipal commission of population and family planning said yesterday.

For some time, there has been widespread speculation that the Chinese government has been planning to relax the policy, largely because the ageing population is putting pressure on the already rudimentary and under-funded state pension system.

The law, which carries a heavy fine for those with second children, has also led to a worrying difference in the ratio of young males to females. Some fear that the workforce on which China's burgeoning economic rise has been built could soon start to deplete.

Yesterday's changes are small, but with widespread feelings that the fines are unjust, as well as the economic concerns about the policy, many in China hope that the rule will eventually be abolished. As with so many areas of the population policy, one of the greatest experiments in social engineering mankind has seen, the proposals are complicated. Under the new plan, Beijing couples made up of two only children will be fined only if the mother is younger than 28 and the second child is born within four years the first. In the past, such couples had to pay a fine of 20 per cent of their annual income.

But couples where one partner has a sibling – or both partners do – will still be discouraged from having a second child and have to pay a fine. National rules differ, depending on the region.

Despite the changes, many are unhappy that the rules exist at all. "Fines on couples who have a second child, even if they are paid by fewer people, remain legally unjust," Yang Zhizhu, a former law professor in Beijing, told China Daily. Mr Yang sued local family planning authorities in January for having a second child and is refusing to pay a fine of 240,642 yuan (£22,787).

Under the One-Child Policy, imposed in 1979 as a way of reining in population growth already running at dangerously high levels in the world's most populous nation, most families were limited to one child. Mu Guangzong, a professor of population research at Peking University, said that the relaxed rules in Beijing marked an improvement, but were not enough to help correct China's population imbalances and raise fertility rates.

The average fertility rate in China is between 1.4 and 1.8 per child-bearing woman, but should be maintained at 2.1 to ensure the replacement of the population. Professor Mu called for a relaxation of the family planning policy throughout China and for every couple to be allowed to have two children.

Increasingly, in areas where the government has rolled the legislation back on an experimental basis, such as the financial centre of Shanghai, the problem is not too many children, but too few. Wealthier Chinese, for example, have often had more than one child and simply paid the fine, content to deal with longer-term ramifications of having a child in violation of the policy themselves.

The National Population and Family Planning Commission reckons that some 400 million births have been prevented by the policy. Whenever voices in the West complain about the One-Child Policy, Chinese population experts urge them to think of the global ramifications of 1.7 billion Chinese, instead of 1.3 billion.