A mother holds her baby outside a children's hospital in central Beijing
A mother holds her baby outside a children's hospital in central Beijing Reuters

The Year of the Dragon is an auspicious one in the Chinese lunar calendar. The Chinese believe that babies born in 2012 will carry good fortune throughout their life. As a result, Chinese mothers are rushing to get pregnant this year, just like in 2007 during the Year of the Pig.

However, the irony in this year's baby craze is China's controversial one-child policy. As China's most important tool for population control, the more than 30-year-old policy limits parents from having more than one child. But because of zodiac superstition, China can expect a 5-percent rise in the newborn population in the Year of the Dragon, Xinhua News reported.

Such a peak in the birth rate brings into question the already hotly contested one-child policy. The debate in China surrounding the restrictive rule centers on the assertion that the one-child policy may eventually risk destabilizing Chinese society and economy.

On the other hand, the one-child policy has kept China's population from skyrocketing out of control. This has primarily allowed China to avoid shortages in resources, providing a great relief for the Chinese government.

In the end, continuity or abolition of the one-child policy comes down to making a choice between the lesser of two devils -- overpopulation or infertility. Unfortunately, both seem to invite instability.

A Brief History

During the era of Chairman Mao, the Chinese were actually encouraged to have as many children as possible under the notion that a strong population meant a strong country.

However, by the 1970's, China's overwhelming rural population began to weigh down the economy. Deng Xiaoping's administration no longer saw the large population as an indicator of national strength but as an obstacle in the way of modernization. China could barely feed its own people.

It was in this environment that the one-child policy came into being. A main architect of the policy was Song Jian, a leading Chinese government official who actually specialized in missile defense. Song Jian was partly influenced by Dutch mathematician Geert Jan Olsder whose research focused on finding an equation where a specific birth rate would prevent overpopulation.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping introduced the one-child policy.

Since that time, Chinese parents living in mainland China have been forced to have only one child. If families dare break the law, they are most often forced to pay a large fine, reportedly four times each parent's yearly salary.

At the local level, punishment is even more severe. Cases of local officials taking away second children if parents cannot pay fines or forcing sterilization are just some of the more egregious examples.

Ever since, the population growth rate has steadily declined. The average annual population growth over 2000-10 averaged only 0.57 percent - moreover, this rate will slow further to an annual growth rate of just 0.43 percent over 2010-20, said Victoria Lai, economist for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

According to United Nations (UN) data, the population growth rate is now at 0.60 percent. In addition, with a fertility rate of 1.8 percent, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 percent, the Chinese have cause for worry.

The Old, the Lonely, and The Missing

While the population of younger generations decreases in size, the number of older Chinese moving towards retirement age only gets bigger.

In China, the retirement age for men is 60 and for women it is either 55 or 50, depending on your job function.

Such unequal age distribution could spell the demise of the Chinese economy. China has profited from its demographic dividend since the mid-1960s.

But as the incoming workforce gets smaller each year, it will no longer be able to rely on such a labor model. China's working population will be growing at a slower rate compared to the entire Chinese population. A smaller workforce will not be able to produce as many low-cost products as the preceding generation.

The Chinese economy is not the only one which will take the brunt of this phenomenon. The youth might suffer even more as they struggle to pay and take care of the elderly.

The working-age population will start to shrink in 2014 so this, coupled with the rise of the elderly population as a percentage of the total, will weigh increasingly heavily on public pension and healthcare systems, said Ms. Lai.

The one-child policy also aggravates the issue of gender inequality in China.

The natural sex ratio at birth is 105 boys for every 100 girls, according to journalist and correspondent Mara Hvistendahl, as interviewed by Freakonomics. In China, however, Ms. Hvistendahl said, the ratio is 121 boys for every 100 girls. In a country where the son is overwhelmingly preferred over the daughter, the one-child policy has accentuated the female-to-male gap.

With ultrasound machines, parents have been able to determine the sex of their unborn child. With the one-child policy in place and the pressure of having a little emperor, sex-selective abortions have become more common.

Of course, not all women are guilty of the act but it is worthy to note that the female-to-male gap more than tripled since the arrival of the ultrasound machine, Ms. Hvistendahl told Freakonomics.

Today, China actually places restrictions on ultrasound use. It is illegal to get an ultrasound to figure out your child's gender.

On the other hand, abortion remains a widely used form of contraception in China. In part because of the strict one-child policy, abortions are much more accepted in China than in the United States.

In 2009, it was reported that there were 13 million abortions per year in China.

Reform or Abolition

No official nationwide polls have been performed to measure Chinese public sentiment about the one-child policy. However, an unofficial online poll did record that 56 percent of respondents wanted a second child.

It appears that most mainland Chinese would prefer to have more than one child. Richer families are often willing to pay the fine to have a second child, and in increasing numbers are travelling to Hong Kong to get around regulations, said Ms. Lai.

Reforms have accommodated the desire of Chinese parents to have a second child. For instance, urban couples where both parents are single children may be allowed to have two children, Lai added.

However, the one-child policy is not close to being abolished. The current five-year plan (2011-2015) makes no mention of doing so. Furthermore, the National Population and Family Planning Commission along with a group of the State Council already released a plan to maintain population growth rates under 0.8 percent.

Reforms seem to be the most progressive method when it comes to the one-child policy, but it remains unsure whether they will come fast enough for China to maintain its current economic growth and relatively stable society.