Growing pains

Until recently, China adhered to a strict one-child policy and parents who flouted it faced disapproval or even punishment. But nowadays the narrative has shifted, with an emphasis on the benefits of having multiple children. Yuwen Wu explains how family life is changing in the most populous nation on earth

At the beginning of the new year in China, babies were big news. At one official press conference after another, statisticians focused on the infants and the birth rate was studied especially closely. The results proved disappointing.

By the end of 2018, China’s population stood at 1.4 billion. There were 15 million new births, which was a drop of two million compared with 2017. Dig deeper into the numbers and another alarming figure emerges: the birth rate was 11 per 1,000 people, a decline from 12.5 per 1,000 in the previous year. It is a sign that new life is becoming rarer – and more precious.

This is the second year in a row that new births and the birth rate have both gone down, following the official end of the one-child policy in 2015.Officials had hoped that young couples would jump at the opportunity to have a second child and there would be more babies than before. The message sent through state media was that the new children would help alleviate the effects of an ageing society. They were part of the Chinese Dream.

But the message does not seem to have changed people’s behaviour. There were 630,000 fewer births in 2017 compared with 2016, with an even lower birth rate forecast for the future. And the downward trend continues, despite all the efforts to exhort couples to have more children.

Changing demographics

For decades, China has benefited from demographic dividends, with a big working population and a much smaller number of people dependent on the handouts paid for by their tax. The benefits of that situation are disappearing, as the working population shrinks and the older age group grows larger.

According to Li Xiru from the National Statistics Bureau, the working population aged 15 to 59 has shrunk by 26 million since 2012. Last year also saw a fall in total employment for the first time in recent times, a trend which is set to continue.

At the same time, China has 166 million people aged 65 and above, which constitutes 11.9 per cent of the population – more than one and a half times the UN’s definition of an ageing society.

This, coupled with longer life expectancy, will have a big social impact. It is likely to affect the cost of labour, as there will be fewer workers available. Those in jobs could, at least in theory, expect more money. Consumer trends will change too, with fewer young people entering the shopping malls or buying goods online. And China’s social security system, which is already under tremendous strain, will come under more pressure as more and more people seek a pension.

The Communist Party believes that for China to continue to have enough manpower for its economic growth and to support its older people, the population needs to grow rather than decline. Young people therefore need to have more children. The fact that they are not is of deep concern.

Career women

So why is there such a low birth rate? There appear to be many contributing factors. For a start, the number of women of child-bearing age is dwindling. People tend to marry at a later age than their parents and many women juggle raising a family with their careers.

The report calls for urgent research and policy thinking

An overwhelming concern is the cost of being a parent. It is estimated that from pregnancy to when a baby reaches three years of age, the parents need to put aside between 74,000 yuan (10,925 USD; £8,474) to 140,000 yuan (20,670 USD; £16,032) a year if they live in a city.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the average salary for a city employee in 2017 was 74,318 yuan (10,973 USD; £8,510). This means that it costs roughly one person’s salary to raise a child. Having a second child therefore demands a major financial commitment from the mother and father.

China has 166 million people aged 65 and above
China has 166 million people aged 65 and above

To make matters worse, there are hardly any daycare facilities available for one-to-three-year-olds. So once the maternity leave (3 to 4 months) is over – and if the mother wants to return to work – she has to either hire a nanny or ask a relative for help. Each option poses potential problems and costs.  The mother might end up hiring a nanny to look after the baby and then asking her mother or mother-in-law to keep an eye on the nanny.

One young woman in her late thirties, who already has a four-year-old son, recently told me that she definitely will not have another child, citing her confined living space, lack of money and a lack of daycare support.  When asked what the government could do to make her change her mind, her wish list included longer maternity leave and good daycare provision.

Urgent action needed

While no solution is in sight yet, the demographic problems are acknowledged and discussions about how to respond are ongoing. Longer term forecasts are likely to make decision-makers sit up and take notice.

A report published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicts that by 2029, China’s population will peak at 1.44 billion and it will then enter a long period of negative growth from 2033. By 2065, it will be reduced to the 1996 level, 1.25 billion.

The working population will fall to 2 million by 2050, the report says, with serious consequences for the labour market and economic growth. The ageing process will accelerate and by 2040, one in four people in China will be aged 65 or over.The report warns of serious social and economic consequences and calls for urgent research and policy thinking.


Radical measures

This has led some people to propose radical measures. Professor Liang Jiankang from Peking University Management School and Huang Wenzheng, a population scholar, urge the government to allocate at least 2 to 5 percent of GDP – around 4,000 billion yuan – as cash incentives for couples, on top of free childcare for children up to six years old. They also propose removing all restrictions so that couples can have as many children as they want, and recommend that no-one is penalised for having births beyond quotas.

The annual People’s Congress will convene in March. As population has become such an urgent matter, experts hope some delegates will table motions to discuss strategies and offer a way for young people to feel they can afford to extend their families.This will set the course for China’s future in the decades and century ahead.

Dr Yuwen Wu is a London-based China specialist and media consultant.  She worked as a senior journalist and editor for BBC World Service for more than 20 years and was a regular contributor to BBC radio, TV and online. 

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