China's Baby Steps Toward More Babies

The reform of China's One Child Policy, which restricts most couples to having a single child, has taken a tiny step in the right direction. On Nov. 15, the Chinese government announced it would loosen the policy, declaring that "a couple within which one partner is an only child" -- dandu in Chinese -- "may have two children." (The current policy, which is not always widely enforced, allows couples living in certain areas where both partners are only children to have two children.) The announcement followed the Third Plenum, a major four-day meeting of Chinese top officials, who promised "comprehensive and deepening" reforms to address China's economic and social issues. But Chinese demographers and population experts have called for the wholesale repeal of the One Child Policy for years -- and they find the new measures too little, too late.

How late? At least two decades. Independent scholar He Yafu, the author of Population Crisis, a book about China's aging population problem, wrote on Nov. 15 that family planning laws should have been eliminated as early as 1991. In his book, He argued that the prolonged suppression of the birthrate would lead to a labor force too small to support a growing number of aging people.

The stakes couldn't be higher. In 2011, Yuan Gang, a professor of government at China's prestigious Peking University, called the One Child Policy "national suicide," citing China's low birthrate and aging population, which he said would cause the country to "grow old before it grows rich." Yuan and He were among 40 scholars from some of China's most prestigious universities to sign an open letter to the Chinese government in August 2012 calling for the immediate abandonment of the One Child Policy. The letter argued that no matter what changes were made, the population of working age adults would begin to shrink in 2015, causing labor shortages. "What China should really be doing," they wrote, "is encouraging people to have children." According to demographer Wang Guangzhou of the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, dandu couples comprise a "rather small" portion of the population. By contrast, many experts argue that only a total and immediate repeal of the One Child Policy can help China avoid a full-blown demographic crisis.

Chinese officials have repeatedly emphasized that change to the One Child Policy will come "step by step." But the country faces an acute imbalance between its young and old populations, one that will take decades to rectify. Most subject matter experts feel that the government would do well to move far more quickly. When it comes China's babies, baby steps just won't do. 

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Now China Is Keeping Its State-of-the-Art Hospital Ship Away From the Philippines

In October, China's massive, state-of-the-art hospital ship, the Peace Ark, completed a four-month deployment to eight countries, coordinating goodwill medical missions and running emergency response exercises with other navies. The ship is one of just a handful of floating hospitals in the world and boasts 300 beds, 20 ICUs and 8 operating theatres, treating patients in Myanmar, Djibouti and Cuba. Yet it remains berthed in Shanghai in the face of unfolding devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Haiyan.

According to the latest government figures, at least 3,361 people were killed by the storm surge that flattened parts of the Philippines last Friday, while 12,487 others were injured. Medical teams on the ground are struggling to handle the crisis, particularly as a lack of clean water and sanitation has fueled the spread of diseases like cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery and leptospirosis. In an outpouring of humanitarian assistance, Britain has sent its largest helicopter carrier, the Illustrious, to the country, loaded with medical supplies and a promise of $32 million in aid. The U.S., for its part, has dispatched two Navy ships, an aircraft carrier, 5,000 troops and is also preparing to deploy the USN Mercy, a hospital ship currently berthed in San Diego.

State media in China have urged the government to deploy Peace Ark in the wake of Haiyan, but the ship, which is well-positioned to respond quickly and effectively to disasters like this one, is unmoved.

China's underwhelming response to the developing crisis has become a point of contention in the region. Its perceived stinginess made headlines again on Thursday, when it became clear that Ikea -- the Swedish furniture company -- had donated more money to Haiyan relief efforts than the world's second largest economy. Experts attribute China's lukewarm attitude to its longstanding maritime dispute with the Philippines, as well as to the U.S. military's effective posturing in the region.

But as the death toll climbs and the crisis worsens, the Peace Ark's stillness grows more unnerving.