The Li-Zhou household operates like most middle class Chinese families. Grandma is over on a Saturday morning, helping take care of the young couple's precocious five-year-old daughter. A housekeeper, called “auntie” though she's no relation, quietly cleans the breakfast dishes.
What's different is the baby dozing peacefully in a crib in the master bedroom. Two months ago, the couple had a second daughter, making them a rarity in a country that for three decades has tried to limit population growth with a harsh one-child policy, fearing an exploding population would leave the country caught in a cycle of inescapable poverty.
It's a policy that has resulted in 400 million fewer births since its introduction in 1979, leaving China a nation with a dearth of brothers and sisters.
“If there was just the one child, she'd be lonely,” said Grace Li, a 34-year-old human resources professional and mother of two, while her husband and mother kept watch over five-year-old Zixian, who dashed back and forth between playing with her toys in the living room and peering over the edge of her sister's crib. “In our generation, we still had cousins that we grew up with. But my daughter has no cousins at all.”
Having a second child is so unique in Shanghai that Zixian has taken to bragging about her little sister to her kindergarten classmates. “She shows off in kindergarten, telling the other kids ‘I have a little sister.' Some of them say they have sisters too, but Zixian says ‘yes, but mine was born by my own mother.'“ The couple didn't break any laws to have their second daughter, Zining. Because Ms. Li and her husband Frank Zhou were both only children themselves, they qualified under a special exemption for Shanghai residents to have a second child.
For more than a decade, this city has allowed couples who meet one or more of a dozen criteria – the most common is that both parents were only children themselves – to have a second baby, a practice now followed in most Chinese provinces. But in recent months, Shanghai authorities have, for the first time, begun encouraging couples to take advantage of the loophole, sliding pamphlets under doors and offering counselling sessions to eligible couples interested in having a second baby as a city with one of the world's lowest fertility rates faces the demographic challenges created by 30 years of birth restrictions.
The city that has driven much of China's startling economic expansion is growing old fast. After three decades of benefiting from having artificially few dependents to feed, Shanghai now has a rapidly growing over-60 population and a shrinking labour force. Already, the city's modest pension fund pays out more than workers pay in, a problem that will grow more acute as millions retire in the next few years without enough young people replacing them in the work force.
And while the situation is most acute here, the problems Shanghai is experiencing are far from unique in this country. Chinese population experts say that the publicity campaign aimed at reminding Shanghai parents they might be eligible to have a second kid will be followed by high-level debate within the Communist Party apparatus on the one-child regime. Some expect the result to bring an end, or at least dramatic change, to one of the Communist Party's most controversial and intrusive policies.
That change could come as early as 2011, when Beijing unveils its next five-year plan for the development of the country.
“The country's leadership realizes the problem. In China, most of the experts in population research have already suggested [changing the one-child policy] There is a consensus among scholars on the subject,” said Zhou Haiweng, a population expert at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government think-tank. Then he adds a line that could affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Chinese couples: “We estimate that during the 12th five-year plan, there will definitely be some change in this policy.”