By Adam Jourdan
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - In a dimly-lit arcade in downtown Shanghai, shopkeeper Xia Zihan holds out a glinting, yellow-glass carving of the fertility goddess Guanyin, a range she says is starting to sell well after China relaxed its single-child policy last month.
"Since the news allowing a second child, we've already asked our factory to increase production of the Guanyin statues," said Xia, adding she expected to see around a 10-20 percent increase in demand for the figurines that cost around one thousand yuan ($160) each.
Beijing said last month it would allow millions of families to have two children, the most radical relaxation of its strict one-child policy in close to three decades.
With an estimated bump of up to 10 percent in the number of births per year, the demand for maternal healthcare is bound to surge, a lift for private hospital operators who are increasing their share of China's gigantic healthcare market.
Healthcare providers like Singapore-based Raffles Medical Group Ltd, Malaysia's IHH Healthcare Bhd and U.S. healthcare firm Chindex International Inc already operate in China.
"I think for the short-term we can expect some kind of rebound of the fertility rate as women rush to have more babies in the next few years," said Peng Xizhe, a demographics expert at Fudan University in Shanghai.
The new rules, which will roll out gradually around China, will allow couples in which just one parent is an only child to have a second baby, part of a plan to raise fertility rates and ease the financial burden of China's rapidly ageing population.
This would see an extra annual one million or so births on top of the current 16 million each year, substantial in itself but marginal when compared to China's near 1.4 billion population. Still, the extra births are close to the number of people in a city like Dallas, Texas.
The fertility market, especially at the value-end of the scale, could see a short-term spike. The main demographic likely to benefit from the policy change is urban mothers in their late thirties, a group more likely to seek methods to boost their chances of having a second baby, said Peng.
Some families will turn to Guanyin figurines, fertility-boosting foods or China's $13 billion traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) market to give birth quickly. Medicine men who promise to ensure the birth of a boy child are also in demand.
China's highly-fragmented TCM market is led by firms such as Tasly Pharmaceutical Group Co Ltd and China Resources Sanjiu Medical & Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, which each have billion dollar-plus annual sales.
Analysts said the more mainstream market for pregnancy-related supplements could receive a $40-50 million boost.
"The two child policy could bring a wave of women having babies, which would have a positive effect on our sales," said Snow Jin, manager of a herbal store that sells ingredients for "fertility soup" on China's eBay-like online market Taobao.
"Parents having a second child are usually older, and so will likely have greater demand for fertility products."
The soup, filled with herbs such as Chinese angelica and honeysuckle, as well as red dates, black beans and eggs, is thought to help boost the chances of conception.
ABOUT A BOY
The increased demand will be focused on major coastal cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, and will affect public sector workers most, a demographic for whom the one-child policy has traditionally been more strictly enforced.
"If the policy hadn't changed I would not have been able to have a second baby. My husband isn't an only child and as I work in the state sector, if I break the rules and have a second child then I would lose my job," said Lily Cai, 30, a civil servant in Shanghai who has a 16-month-old baby girl.
Cai said her husband and his family were keen to have a second child, and have often said it would be better to have a boy, a traditional preference in China.
"Almost all my clients are people looking to have a child. Perhaps they've already had a girl, but now want to have a boy to continue the family line," said medicine man Sun Daoguo, who runs a Shanghai store. Parents pay up to one thousand yuan for him to help raise the chances of a boy being born, he said.
Sun said he advises mothers-to-be on how to adjust their feng shui, the traditional Chinese concept of balance between a person and the environment, to increase the likelihood of giving birth to a son.
More conventional medicines, over-the-counter supplements and treatments such as In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) could also see a surge in sales, although analysts said high-cost procedures like IVF would see the least benefit.
"The increase in caring for older mothers will really raise the demand on maternity hospitals and increase the strain on doctors," said Jiang Peiru, head of gynaecology at one of Shanghai's top hospitals. She said the clinic had prepared an extra 40 beds, hired more staff and increased training.
"We haven't seen a clear rise yet, but next year and the year after there will definitely be an increase as mothers look for treatment due to the child-birth reforms." ($1 = 6.0932 Chinese yuan)
(Additional reporting by SHANGHAI newsroom; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)