Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Demographic warning

By Dan Mariano
Manila Times

Proponents of artificial contraception in the Congress are apparently on a roll. Last week Rep. Edcel Lagman of Albay was reported saying that the Reproductive Health bill has gained even more adherents in the House of Representatives.

Lagman claimed that 22 additional congressmen have bolstered the ranks of the original 108 co-authors of the highly controversial House Bill 5043. He is also hoping that 24 more congressmen would sign up on the RH bill, giving their bloc a majority of the House quorum “at any given time.”

With the recent addition of new party-list representatives, the House now has 265 members.

Numbers, however, are not the only reason for Lagman’s optimism that the third regular session of the Fourteenth Congress would finally see the passage of the RH bill.

The Bicolano lawmaker pointed out the support of several senators and the general public as shown in the findings of recent opinion polls. Moreover, he said, the bill has been endorsed by nongovernmental organizations and Christian congregations, save for the dominant Roman Catholic Church, whose leaders remain opposed to any form of artificial contraception.

As of last estimate, there are about 90 million people in the Philippines. The country’s annual population growth rate of 2.04 percent is one of Asia’s highest—and well above the government’s target of 1.9 percent.

HB 5043 proponents insist that “modern” family planning is an indispensable component of sustainable development. If the country is to achieve the economic growth rates of its dynamic neighbors—such as China—it must curb its population growth, RH bill supporters say.

China is a favorite model because its rapid, double-digit economic growth coincided with its adoption of a one child per couple population policy in the late 1970s. Recent reports from the mainland, however, tend to show that the draconian population measure has not lived up to all its promises. It even threatens to thwart China’s economic ambitions.

David Pierson of the LA Times reported recently that the bold social experiment—which, indeed, helped slash mass poverty and improve living standards—is now threatening China’s hard-won gains.

“China’s working-age population—the engine behind its prolific growth—will start shrinking within a few years,” Pierson wrote in the report, which had Cao Jun and Nicole Liu as contributors.

The ranks of China’s elderly are projected to soar. “By the middle of this century, fully a third of China’s population will be age 60 or older, compared with 26 percent in the United States,” Pierson reported. “China’s projected 438 million senior citizens will outnumber the entire US population.”

What China faces is a predicament confronting many Western societies; fewer and fewer workers will be available to care for a burgeoning number of senior citizens.

Pierson’s report, however, pointed out a major difference: “China’s family-tinkering policy has accelerated a shift that the country is ill-prepared to manage and finance.”

The LA Times article quotes Richard Jackson of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies as saying: “The problem is the age wave is coming while China is still relatively poor. China may be the first major country to grow old before it grows rich.”

China’s business capital, Shanghai, offers a preview of what looms in the entire country’s demographic horizon. Over a fifth of the population of the largest Chinese city is over age 60. In 11 years that figure is estimated to double to 40 percent.

“Seniors crowd public parks to do tai chi exercises in the morning and play checkers in the afternoon. They natter with one another on city buses, where everyone 70 and older rides free of charge,” Pierson reported.

“So many residents have reached retirement age that city officials are urging local companies to persuade their aging staffs to stay on the job longer. The government has injected $618 million into the public pension system over the last two years to keep it solvent,” he added.

Pierson quoted Lu Yiwen, a 45-year-old factory technician, as saying: “I’m not sure what we’re going to do when my husband and I get old. We have one son and we just hope he can take care of us. Maybe he’ll have his own business. But it’s a lot of pressure for one child.”

Western observers continue to see China as a low-income country, notwithstanding its impressive economic development. Its per-capita GDP in 2008 was just over $5,000, a ninth of America’s.

Just three out of 10 Chinese workers are covered by a pension scheme; majority of those who have coverage are city-dwellers. “Families save copiously, but it’s rarely enough to support them through old age,” Pierson wrote. “Average life expectancy is 73 years—up a stunning 32 years since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949.”

Pierson added: “For most Chinese, social security still means relying on extended family. But that bond is being strained by low birthrates and the migration of tens of millions of young people from the country to jobs in far-off manufacturing plants.”

There are lessons to be learned from China’s demographic predicament. Our lawmakers would be well advised to heed them.

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