REN WANG, CHINA
Behind the high gray walls of this farming village, peasant couples are conducting an experiment that suggests, its designers say, that the most unpopular and costly policy of the past quarter- century may not have been necessary.
For the past 21 years, the citizens of Yicheng County, in the mining province of Shanxi, have been exempt from the "one-child policy" on which the Chinese government has founded its bid to keep a lid on its vast population. They have been allowed to have two children. Yet Yicheng's birth-rate is lower than the national average.
"If the whole country had adopted the Yicheng policy from the start, we could have kept China's population under 1.2 billion," below the official target for 2000, says Tan Kejian, of Shanxi's provincial Academy of Social Sciences. "And this policy was much easier for peasants to accept."
Central government officials chal- lenge Mr. Kejian's conclusions. But the government-sanctioned Yicheng experiment, almost unknown outside family-planning circles, is under increasingly interested scrutiny from Chinese experts as the "one-child policy" approaches what appears to be the end of its life, after 27 years.
"Most scholars are recommending to the government that the one-child policy needs to be turned into a two-child policy," says Chen Wei, head of the Population and Sustainable Development Group at Renmin University in Beijing. "Maybe not now, but in 2010," when the next five-year plan begins.
Officials at the National Population and Family Planning Commission, which has been responsible for implementing the one-child policy, insist that "the success of China's family-planning policy has been of huge significance," in the words of Yu Xuejun, director of the commission's policy and legislation department. "I am confident our general direction is correct," he says.
But the one-child policy, beyond raising worldwide concerns about the forced abortions and sterilizations that have scarred several generations of Chinese women, has bequeathed a grave legacy.
China's population is aging fast; by 2020, 234 million people, or 16 percent of the population, will be over 60, official figures indicate, up from 9 percent today.
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