Judged by its own goals, the one-child policy has largely been a success. China was able to stop runaway population growth, and the population has grown far richer during that time, partly as a result, even though social problems such as abortions and an unnatural gender imbalance have soared.
But now the economic reckoning has arrived. Shanghai's birth rate, at just 0.88 per woman, is less than half the national average and even lower than in such rapidly aging societies as Japan and South Korea. Already, more than 20 per cent of the city's population is over the age of 60, and that proportion is set to double by 2050.
Birth rates usually fall as a society becomes richer, but China is set to be the first low-income country to have to deal with the a rich country's demographic challenges. In addition to low birth rates, Chinese are living longer. The average lifespan is now 73, up a remarkable 32 years since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.
Much of the country has no pension insurance, and in places such as Shanghai that do, the city's modest plan is already paying out more than workers pay in, a situation that will get dramatically worse as the years go by and more workers retire without anyone taking their place in the labour force. Nationally, in 20 years there will be just 1.6 working age adults per pensioner, down from more than seven before 1979. And those workers aren't rich – for all China's recent economic progress, per-capita-annual income here is still just more than $5,000, a fraction of what it is in developed economies facing the same demographic problems.
To partially head off the problem, Beijing has repeatedly pledged to introduce a national pension program. The difficulty, however, lies in devising one that takes care of the growing number of elderly without overburdening their children and grandchildren.
Shanghai's answer – to promote the loopholes in the one-child law so there will eventually be more workers to support the city's growing number of retirees – is being combined with steps to liberalize the city's strict hukou registration system for rural migrants who come to the city looking for work. But the city believes the long-term answer is to have more Shanghaiese children.
“In the past, many [of those eligible to have a second child]did not pay attention to the two-child policy,” said Zhang Meixing, a spokesman for the Shanghai Population and Family Planning Commission. “We will do more publicity and guiding and report every year on the fertility rate to let people know when it is a baby boom year and when it's best for them to have a child.”
While the number of couples applying to have a second child has increased slowly, from 5,600 in 2005 to more than 7,000 in 2007, Mr. Zhang said those numbers still represent only a tiny amount in this city of 19 million people. Three decades of restrictions seem to have created a new set of barriers – some cultural, some economic – to families having second children.
“Many people feel that to have only one child is to do their part for the country. Many ordinary folks do not understand the situation, the population problem we will have in the future,” said Mr. Zhou, the demography expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. “Because they have only one child, they don't rely on that child for retirement. They rely on society for support. But if each family has only one child, social support is an empty promise.”
At a government-run family planning centre in the upscale Pudong side of the city, it's Jiang Leiji's job to meet young couples and counsel them about parenthood options. The centre hands out “Having Another Child” pamphlets to drop-ins, as well as towel packs in a container listing the 12 exceptions to the one-child policy on the outside. “It's hard to say how many people are interested in having a second child, but it's not common,” Ms. Jiang says, sitting on a couch in the centre's reception area, which is deserted on a Thursday afternoon.