BBC Monday, 25 September, 2000, 16:56 GMT 17:56 UK

China steps up 'one child' policy

China is redoubling controversial efforts to control its population by limiting couples to one child.

The one-child policy was introduced to ensure that China, which has historically been prone to floods and famine, could feed all its people.

Government officials said the policy was a great success, preventing at least 250 million births since 1980.

An editorial in the Communist Party newspaper, The People's Daily, said: "We cannot just be content with the current success, we must make population control a permanent policy".

China's population is expected to increase from 1.26 billion at the end of last year to 1.6 billion in 2050.

Females killed

The 'one child' policy stipulates each couple living in the cities should only have one child, unless one or both of the couple are from an ethnic minority or they are both only children.

In most rural areas, a couple may have a second child after a break of several years.

Critics of the policy maintain it has led in some case to the killing of female infants because of the traditional preference for boys.

The number of men is thought to outnumber women in China by more than 60 million.

Last week it was reported that Chinese police had detained three officials who caused the death of a baby in central China while enforcing the birth control rules.

But it is common to find couples in the countryside, where 80% of the population live, with a large number of children.

Forced abortions

Despite forced abortions and severe financial penalties, many couples still get around the law by sending the pregnant woman to stay with relatives until the baby is born or claiming the newborn baby was adopted or belongs to a friend or relative.

Backed by the punitive sanctions, the 'one child' policy has generally worked in the cities.

The China Youth Daily said the 'one child' had also allowed many children in the countryside to get a better education.

The price of school fees has risen rapidly in the countryside - representing around 27% of the total budget of an average family with just one child, and therefore acts as a strong deterrent to having more children.