By JEREMY PAGE
BEIJING—China's latest census shows the nation's population is aging rapidly and its growth rate has declined sharply, raising new questions about the government's unwillingness to abandon its controversial one-child policy despite warnings of a looming demographic crunch.
When the Chinese government launched the world's biggest demographic experiment in 1980, it said it would take about 30 years to tame the nation's explosive population growth once encouraged by Chairman Mao Zedong.
China appears to have achieved that goal: Initial census results released Thursday show China's population, the world's largest, rose to 1.34 billion as of last year, from 1.27 billion in 2000. That puts average annual growth at 0.57% over the decade, down from 1.07% in 1990-2000.
The census, conducted last year, also shows that people over the age of 60 now account for 13.3% of China's population, compared to 10.3% in 2000. And the reserve of future workers has dwindled: People under 14 now make up 16.6% of the population, down from 23% 10 years ago.
Yet China's leaders vowed again this week to maintain the one-child family-planning policy. This despite the census results and a decade-long campaign by an informal advocacy group of top Chinese academics and former officials who have risked their careers to argue the policy is based on flawed science and vested bureaucratic interests. China's policy is enforced by the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which employs a half-million full-time staffers and six million part-timers. It collects millions of dollars a year in fines from people who violate family-planning rules.
Chinese leaders credit the policy with preventing 400 million births, helping to lift the country out of poverty and limit its carbon emissions.
Under China's one-child policy, many (but not all) couples who have more than one child face fines of several months' salary and can lose their jobs if they work for the state. The program has also led to some forced abortions and sterilizations.
According to several people close to the Family Planning Commission, the agency is believed to be considering limited pilot plans to relax the policy. But the informal advocacy group pressing for change say those measures are too little, and too late, to address a demographic crunch that will fundamentally reshape China's economy and society.
They say China's elderly population is expanding rapidly as Mao-era baby boomers retire, putting new burdens on society to cover the cost of their retirement. At the same time, China's labor force is due to start shrinking in 2016, reversing the demographic phenomenon of a widening pool of low-cost labor that powered a manufacturing boom over the past three decades.
The number of workers aged 20-to-24 is already declining due to the lower birth rate two decades ago and a rise in the number of young people seeking higher education. China's traditional preference for boys also means the nation now has about 120 males for every 100 females. By 2020 China could be home to as many as 24 million single young men with little prospect of marrying or having their own children.
The solution, members of the advocacy group argue, is for China to move swiftly to a "two-child" policy, and possibly to offer incentives for couples to have a second child. That, they say, would help China to avoid the fate of Japan and some Western countries that are struggling with an aging population and shrinking work force.
China's leadership appears to be dragging its feet on lifting the one-child limit nationwide in part because it is wary of controversy ahead of a once-a-decade Communist Party leadership change next year. The man in charge of population issues is Vice Premier Li Keqiang, the frontrunner to take over as premier.
The group advocating for ending the one-child policy thought the change "would be a simple matter," said Gu Baochang, a professor of demography at Renmin University in Beijing, former adviser to the Family Planning Commission and informal leader of the advocacy group. Changing the policy, he says, is "so necessary demographically, and so wise politically. But resistance was so strong—much stronger than we had thought."
The government inaction is all the more notable because the family-planning bureaucracy is a lightning rod for public resentment.
In one of China's most notorious human-rights cases, a blind, self-taught lawyer named Chen Guangcheng was imprisoned in 2006 by local officials after he sued them over forced abortions, even though the central government had publicly sided with Mr. Chen.
On Tuesday, President Hu Jintao told a meeting of top party leaders that China would "stick to and improve its current family-planning policy and maintain a low birth rate," the official Xinhua news agency reported. The policy already exempts several groups such as ethnic minorities, rural couples whose first child is a girl, and couples in which both partners are only children.
The commission is now considering pilot schemes in five or six provinces allowing couples in which one partner is an only child to have a second baby, according to people familiar with the discussions. But members of the advocacy group says it will take at least two years to see the results of those pilots, which will then have to be tested nationally. That means a nationwide two-child policy is unlikely before 2015, they say.
The Family Planning Commission, meanwhile, actively suppresses dissenting voices, its critics allege. Around 6 p.m. on March 11, two professors from Beijing's Tsinghua University, Wang Ming and Wang Feng, were on their way to a live television interview in which they planned to call for an end to the one-child policy.
Wang Ming is a members of a consultative body to the National People's Congress and had filed a petition against the one-child policy for the second successive year. Wang Feng is a demographer and member of the advocacy group who heads the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing.
As they approached the studio, Wang Feng's mobile phone rang. It was a producer of the show, he said, calling to say the interview had been canceled under pressure from the Family Planning Commission. "We shouldn't have advertised it in advance," the show's anchor told the two men later, they say.
"This is a really politically sensitive question," says Ji Baocheng, president of Renmin University and an NPC member, who filed a petition this year, for the fourth time, calling for a review of the policy. "The problem is there is a difference between how experts see it and how officials see it."
The official view relies to a large extent on the theory, put forward by Thomas Malthus in 1798, that China has insufficient land and natural resources to support its population.
The Family Planning Commission declined interview requests. It has denied suppressing critics who speak out against its policies.
One prominent former official, however, outlined in a four-hour interviewwhat she said was the prevailing view on the commission.
"These so-called experts [in the advocacy group] are talking nonsense," said Ma Li, an NPC member and advisor to the State Council (China's cabinet) who headed the commission's Population and Development Research Center until 2009 and still works from its offices.
She drew a graph that she said showed that China's "demographic dividend" would last for at least another 15 years as its labor force would remain stable at about one billion between 2016 and 2026.
"There's no such issue as a labor shortage in China," she said. "Our problem is we have too many people."
On the other side of the debate is the advocacy group, made up of two dozen leading demographers, economists and former Family Planning officials who joined forces in 2000.
They knew that China's fertility rate, or the average number of children born to each woman, was in decline even before the one-child policy began in 1980.The fertility rate had dropped to 2.7 in 1979 from 5.5 in 1970 due to a policy encouraging people to marry later, wait longer between children, and have fewer babies.
The advocacy group also knew that fertility rates in other developing countries had declined at a similar rate between 1970 and 1990 without a one-child policy.
So they set out to prove a point that was almost heresy to China's family planners: that the one-child policy was unnecessary.
They secured funding from the Ford Foundation through Joan Kaufman, a Harvard Professor who has studied China's family-planning policies since the early 1980s and worked in the foundation's Beijing office between 1996 and 2001. "When this initiative began, there was this belief that generating evidence would convince policy makers. That was naive, because it's not an evidence-based policy," said Dr. Kaufman.
"They have a huge family-planning bureaucracy and to have that become redundant is a worry. There's also a knee-jerk feeling that if they lift the lid everyone's going to have millions of babies."
Group members began by quietly conducting field research to prove, among other things, that China's fertility rate had fallen dangerously below the "replacement rate" of 2.1 children for every woman, which is generally required to keep a population stable. They calculated that the fertility rate should be 1.47 if the policy was implemented correctly, taking into account the various exemptions.
The commission says the fertility rate has been about 1.8 since 1991, because it assumes that many children are born secretly to avoid fines. Even taking that into account, members of the group calculated it was 1.5 to 1.6.
At first, the campaign by the activists' group had some success: They persuaded senior officials to attend two international seminars on demographics and aging populations in Hawaii and Beijing. In 2004, they filed a petition to the government which they say reached the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee but wasn't acted on.
Soon afterward, the Family Planning Commission struck back. Zhang Weiqing, its minister at the time, oversaw the compilation of a "National Population Development Strategy Research Report," which rejected many of the group's findings.
The report reasserted that the fertility rate had been 1.8 since about 1991 and should remain at that level for another three decades.
"A higher or lower fertility rate is not beneficial for economic and social development in China," the report said.
It said the one-child policy had prevented 400 million births, based on the assumption that, without it, the fertility rate would have stayed where it was in 1970, rather than falling naturally as it did in other developing countries.
It also predicted that China's overall population would peak at about 1.5 billion in 2033. The U.S. Census Bureau, and many Chinese demographers, now predict that China's population will peak at less than 1.4 billion in 2026.
Once the report was published, the advocacy group was ostracized by the commission.
Mr. Gu's group now say their findings will be backed up by the census, which tried for the first time to count children born in secret—by offering discounts on fines—and is expected to show there are fewer than previously estimated when the full results are released.
Whether it will be enough to spur the government into action is another question. "There's a saying in Chinese," said Wang Feng. "It's easier to get on a tiger than to get off it."
Write to Jeremy Page at email@example.com