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Population governance trends for equality, balance

HU ZHAN and PENG XIZHE | 2021-09-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

People tend to their children at a community square on May 31, 2021, in Wuhan, Hubei Province. China’s universal three-child policy is expected to be a timely and effective step to boost the birthrate and address population aging. Photo: CFP

As socialism with Chinese characteristics enters a new era, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved. The trend of population development and the people’s way of life and production have undergone major changes, raising new demands for China’s population governance. While issues in traditional population development and governance remain, it is necessary to examine these problems in the new context and locate new problems, so as to fully respond to the development goals of the new era.

The deepening of China’s population aging, the change of human capital structure, and the acceleration of international migration flows have reshaped China’s population and labor force structure, which in turn creates a high demand for industrial structure upgrades and economic form transformation. Also, the global industrial layout and trade structure will be impacted and the population development issues are likely to break through the national border and become global governance issues. In this light, China’s population development and governance need to acquire a global vision as soon as possible.
For one, globalization itself is primarily driven by the world population development trend. The globalization of the labor market intensifies the global flow of population, resources, capital, and information. Classic “comparative interest” shows the characteristics of the new era, particularly in the globalization of population allocation and governance. 
Furthermore, it must be noted that while the globalization of population development and governance introduces new concepts and paths, it also generates non-traditional governance challenges.
In the process of global governance, different types of governance modes are bound to collide, which requires China to enhance international dialogue. It is also essential to intensify in-depth cooperation with international organizations, and encourage Chinese enterprises and institutions to strengthen human resources development cooperation projects under the existing framework. Upon “seeking common ground while shelving differences” to achieve mutual benefit and win-win results, China should actively explore ways and tools to integrate into global economic, social, and cultural development.
Population aging
One of the focal points of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) is to actively cope with the social phenomena of sub-replacement fertility and population aging, laying a strategic foundation for population development in the next few decades.
In view of China’s low fertility rate, it is undoubtedly necessary to accelerate the relaxation of fertility restrictions and create a “child-rearing friendly” social environment to arrest the decline in the nation’s birthrate. 
In the meantime, population aging has become a norm in Chinese society, leading to a contradiction between the changed population age structure and the current social governance and institutions. 
In this aspect, the interpretation of the national strategy on population aging in the fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee should focus on “implementation,” meaning that breakthroughs in research and practice on key issues and key fields are much needed. 
In the near future, the policy focus should be on improving the livelihood security of the elderly and fostering new drivers of economic development, so as to consolidate strategic reserves as soon as possible. 
Moreover, population aging is coupled with demographic transformation, social and economic transformation, as well as the realization of modernization, which means improvement of governance and forward-looking and open institutional arrangements are of particular importance.
Technological advancement
The scientific and technological revolution represented by information technology and life science is profoundly changing the ways of production and life, industrial patterns, social structures, and political forms. Its impact on the pattern of population development and relevant policy design should be strategically valued.
On the one hand, China’s “post-demographic transition” process is synchronized with the rapid development of information technology and biotechnology, which effectively improves the convenience and efficiency of social development and economic operations, promotes the transformation of people’s production, lifestyle, and social role, and even brings huge dividends. 
On the other hand, the development of science and technology will also have a structural impact on the traditional social and economic forms and governance patterns, and then affect the process of population development and the distribution of social resources. Information technology and biotechnology are not only changing the way of production and life, but also greatly reconstructing the theory and value system of the relationship between population and development in today’s society, influencing the strategic pattern and policy tools of population governance. 
Therefore, while encouraging technological innovation, the income distribution system and mechanism should be gradually perfected, to cushion the adverse impact of technological application on some groups, so as to achieve mutual compensation and balance between “technological bonus” and “technological destruction.”
Intergenerational relationship 
Contemporary Chinese society has witnessed profound changes of population and family. With the disintegration of the system of units, individuals who once belonged to “units” are now mostly members of a family, meaning that a large proportion of the burden has been transferred to the family. Traditional mutual assistance between family members has become a prerequisite for coping with external risks, reshaping the traditional family network (mainly the parent-child network) in the new historical times. 
At present, Chinese families are primarily constituted as multi-functional nuclear families. Though this enhances the family cohesion to a certain extent, it also causes the family to face great vulnerability when there is a problem of mutual assistance among members.
In this context, it is urgent to take note of the changes to family intergenerational relationship patterns, especially the intergenerational transformation of the “50s/60s” and the “80s/90s” generations in the near future. The new family or intergenerational contradiction surfaces, which is also a concrete manifestation of the diversification of current family types. 
However, it also creates an opportunity to increase the intergenerational cohesion of contemporary families given that there are fewer children in families. How to make full use of cultural traditions should be the focus of population development and governance strategies in the future.
Population migration
Orderly population migration plays an important role in realizing China’s demographic dividend, and its importance will continue in population governance for a long period of time into the future. However, in the face of a series of structural socioeconomic changes in the new era, several governance dilemmas must be addressed.
A new type of urbanization has become an important carrier of China’s modernization and a main driver to expand domestic demand since the 18th CPC National Congress. The urbanization of “land,” which focuses on expanding urban space, is accelerating its transformation into the urbanization of “people,” which focuses on comprehensively improving the quality of development. This not only requires further ensuring that population migration is carried out in accordance with economic and market laws, but also involves issues such as citizenization of rural migrants, the core of which is the reform of the household registration system. 
Moreover, the demand for orderly migration governance has also made regional and urban-rural balanced development an important issue in population governance. In particular, the increasing pressure of population aging on socioeconomic development during the promotion of the new urbanization strategy may be transmitted to the central and western regions (mainly rural areas) through population flow, further enlarging some inherent regional differences, thus increasing the complexity of governance. 
Therefore, it is necessary to further explore the characteristics of population mobility and urbanization, as well as the phased characteristics of the contradiction between supply and demand of regional resources and public services, so as to integrate relevant national development strategies, and achieve regional coordination and integration mechanisms on this basis.
The current urbanization process has entered a phase where the central city drives the development of urban agglomerations and clusters, especially with the support of transport infrastructure, such as high-speed railways. High mobility increases social risk and management difficulty, posing a challenge to the governance capacity of local governments at all levels. Under the new technological conditions and population flow, an enhancement of the emergency response capacity to handle the risks brought by population flow will be on top of the agenda of urban governance, management, and service modernization.
Equality, balance
The issue of equality and balance involves all aspects of population and socioeconomic and cultural development. From the perspective of the life cycle, a population development strategy should strive to create conditions to promote the overall development of the whole population. 
At present, people are worrying more about the decrease of the number of children and the working-age population in the future, so the existing policy tools focus more on adjusting the fertility policy to encourage young couples of childbearing age to have more children.
However, how to improve the health quality and human capital accumulation of the children, in particular, support for the tens of millions of left-behind children, disabled children, and poor children still has much room for improvement. 
Therefore, it is necessary to shift the attention from childbearing to childrearing, making sure the government, society, and family provide comprehensive care and a guarantee for the development of children and adolescents. 
More often than not, the equalization of social distribution is often intertwined with gender issues. Quite a number of public policies mistakenly equate “gender equality” with “gender neutrality,” which in some areas aggravates gender inequality. With the emergence of women’s advantages in human capital accumulation, the gender gap in the labor market is expected to be further narrowed, but the redistribution system still needs to be further optimized to ensure that the gender gap in medical and pension transfer payments can be significantly reduced or even eliminated in the future.
In addition, from a more macro perspective, future population development strategies should also stress the balance between the present and the future, harmony among ethnic groups, and cooperation among countries. The balance and coordination between population and environmental resources will also be one of the key issues in future socioeconomic development and population governance.
Hu Zhan is a professor from the Center of Population and Development Policy Studies at Fudan University and Peng Xizhe is the vice president of the Fudan Development Institute. 
Edited by YANG XUE