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BEIJING (Reuters) - Shanghai is urging eligible couples to have two children as worries about the looming liability of an aging population outweighs concerns about over-stretched resources, a city official said on Friday.
The policy marks the first time in decades Chinese officials have actively encouraged procreation.
China's famous "one child" policy is actually less rigorous than its name suggests, and allows urban parents to have two offspring if they are both only children. Rural couples are allowed a second child if their first is a girl.
This is still the official line in most of China, but the financial hub of Shanghai is now rich enough to focus on a new concern -- the burden of an aging population of native-born Shanghainese.
More children would help relieve the heavy pressure from aging people, said Zhang Meixin, a spokesman for the Shanghai Municipal Population and Family Planning Commission, adding that the basic population policy had not changed.
"Shanghai's over-60 population already exceeds 3 million, or 21.6 percent of registered residents," he told Reuters by telephone. "That is already near the average figure of developed countries and is still rising quickly."
Most newly-married couples registered in Shanghai are both only children and so may have two children, Zhang said.
The number of couples eligible to have two children rose from 4,600 in 2005 to 7,300 in 2008, he added.
"The current average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime is lower than one," Zhang said. "If all couples have children according to the policy, it would definitely help relieve pressure in the long term."
The U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies warned in April that by 2050 China would have more than 438 million people over 60 years of age, with more than 100 million aged 80 and above.
The country will have just 1.6 working-age adults to support every person aged 60 and above, compared with 7.7 in 1975.
But if Beijing changes tack on policy, it may not be difficult to shift the population balance.
Over two-thirds of women would like to have two or more children to prevent their children becoming spoilt or lonely, a senior official at the National Family Planning Commission said earlier this year.
While the population of those born in Shanghai is aging fast, China's urban workforce is continuously replenished by migrants from the countryside, who are not registered residents.
China's underfunded state pension system and shrinking family size has removed a traditional layer of support for elders, leaving society ill-prepared to cope with an aging population.
China aims to keep its overall population, the world's largest, below 1.36 billion by the end of next year.