Year of the Dragon boom threatens one-child rule

DESPITE YEARS of Communism, China clings to many superstitions and none is more widespread than an auspicious birth date.

Next year brings the double whammy of the millennium and the year of the dragon, which promises to send pregnancies soaring - and throw Peking's one-child policy into chaos. "We only get to have one child, so we want to get everything right and there is nothing like an auspicious date to start off with," said Shang Rong, a newly married marketing executive in Peking.

She has two friends who are already pregnant and hopes that she too will produce a dragon baby to bring in the new millennium. In fact, she is so fixated with the idea that she has already started dreaming of noble- sounding names and is determined that her infant, when he or she arrives, will learn English and music from an early age and get every advantage she and her husband can afford.

Mainland Chinese remain obliged to observe strict birth quotas, which were introduced in the early Eighties to limit exponential population growth. While rural dwellers are often permitted two offspring, urban women must have an abortion if they become pregnant for a second time.

The limit means a good birth date is especially significant to give precious only children the best start in life. The year is important: in Chinese tradition the dragon, which is the fifth animal of the Eastern zodiac, represents fertility and strength. When coinciding with the new millennium, which many in China have dubbed the Asian century, the year 2000 is just too auspicious to ignore.

The date is also significant, so well-to-do couples - especially in southern China - will sometimes opt for a Caesarean birth when it is not strictly necessary. This allows some choice on the delivery date and increases the chances of getting a lucky number such as eight.

As might be expected, the State Family Planning Commission's propaganda director, Chen Shengli, discounts superstition over birth dates as a minor consideration. But he conceded that auspicious years have sent pregnancy rates soaring in the past, and that the government can do little to prevent couples having their one baby in the year 2000.

Hospitals such as the Peking Capital Union are already seeing an increase in pregnancies compared with 1998. One doctor said he thought the rate would increase by 5 to 10 per cent through the year. With the likes of Ms Shang and her friends determined to provide the best for their "little emper-ors," as only children in China are often called, businesses catering for mothers and babies are gearing up for a boom.

"It's early days to gauge quite how big the increase in pregnancies there will be, as the Chinese New Year doesn't fall until February. But there has been a lot of talk, as everyone wants a dragon child, especially a millennium one," said Matthew Estes, who runs baby-care stores in China.

Standing in his flagship store in an upmarket district of Peking, he recites a common phrase in China's cities: "Six pockets, one mouth", meaning that a child has the financial resources of his or her parents and the two sets of doting grandparents. Since China introduced its one-child policy in the early Eighties and focused parents on a single offspring, spending on children has risen sharply. The average Peking household now spends about 750 yuan (pounds 58) a month, or around 40 per cent of income, exclusively on its child.

Doctors expect that the surge in births next year will be followed by a drop-off in the birth rate in 2001 and China should remain more or less on target for its population to level out at 1.6 billion in 2050. But a baby boom in a nation that gets 21 million births in an average year is not what Pekingwants to see. China's population is already approaching 1.3 billion, some 100 million more than was originally intended for the year 2000.

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