third plenum

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By Norma Cohen, Demography Correspondent

News that China is planning to ease its decades-old “one child” family planning policy should come as no surprise to anyone who has looked at demographic change in that region.

The working age population – defined as those aged 15 to 64, had been predicted by the United Nations Population Division to peak at 1.01bn by 2015 and fall gradually thereafter. In fact, it had already peaked in 2012 and is now headed the other way.

But the reality is that China’s “one-child” policy did not apply all over. Couples are allowed to have more than one child when both parents are only children. Rural parents were allowed to have more children which is why the current fertility rate for the 2010/15 period is 1.66 per woman. Although that is below the 2.1 children per woman that demographers say is required to keep population steady – not growing – it is clear that at least some women are already having more than one. 

Gideon Rachman

A "Chinese Dream" promotion billboard (Getty)

I spent last weekend in Beijing, as part of a group of foreigners, at a small conference dedicated to “Understanding China”. We met a large cross-section of the country’s senior leadership from President Xi Jinping on down. We heard many reiterations of the idea that China is about to pursue “comprehensive reform”. So I would love to be able to say that I have a crystal clear idea of what is likely to emerge from the much-hyped Communist Party plenum that begins in Beijing this weekend. But that would be an overstatement. Most of the Chinese leaders were understandably cagey about exactly what reforms would be necessary to achieve the “Chinese dream” of national greatness and prosperity. A certain pre-plenum caginess had set in. And indeed many of the important arguments have not been settled. That, after all, is the business of the party plenum.

However, most of the key subjects that need to be tackled are already clear and the outlines of decisions are emerging: