Stark Decline in Birth Rate a Legacy of Pandemic, One-Child Policy, and Choice

Unofficial data published by China’s Ministry of Public Security indicated a 15% decline in new birth registrations in 2020. The drop off is a reflection of a host of factors: the coronavirus epidemic, legacies of the “one-child policy” (the “two-child policy” since 2015), financial pressure on young couples, and changing social norms and gender roles. Bloomberg News reported on the context of the MPS data:

There were a total of 10.04 million babies registered with the government in 2020, 14.8% lower than in 2019, according to data released by the Ministry of Public Security on Monday.

The figures are usually lower than the actual number of births in the country as some parents don’t immediately register their children. In 2019, there were 11.79 million babies registered and 14.65 million children born. The statistics bureau will release official birth data in April.

[…] The Communist Party has signaled willingness to further relax birth restrictions during the 14th Five-Year Plan period that starts this year, urging an “inclusive” fertility policy at a Party conclave held in late October. The annual birthrate in 2019 dropped to the lowest level since at least 1949. [Source]

The pandemic has affected birth rates globally. A Brookings Institution study predicted that births in the United States will decline by 300,000-500,000 in 2021. Japan set a new all-time low of 848,000 births in 2020, a figure which is expected to drop to 776,000 in 2021. At the South China Morning Post, Amanda Lee reported on Chinese city-level data, which predict an even greater future drop-off in birth rate:

“Although we cannot deduce the decline in the birth population in these regions as the annual decline in the country, we consider that idea of having two children is weak and the number of women of childbearing age has decreased, so we need not anticipate further that the birth population in 2020 will drop significantly compared with 2019. The collapse of the newborn population is really here,” said James Liang, a research professor of applied economics at the Guanghua School of Management, Peking University, in a blog post last week.

[…] Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui province, reported 79,300 newborns in 2020, down 23 per cent from a year earlier, according to a report from the city government.

In the city of Guangzhou, the provincial capital of southern economic powerhouse Guangdong province, the number of newborn babies fell to the lowest level in nearly a decade, said a report in the state-run Guangzhou Daily. [Source]

The decline in birthrate in China is not entirely attributable to pandemic-related factors.

At The Financial Times, Thomas Hale, Yuan Yang, Sun Yu shared expert commentary on causes and implications of the drop-off:

“We’ve known for some time there would be a decline, but such a big drop was beyond our expectations,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think-tank. “We believe [last year’s decline] is related to Covid: that households are more worried now.”

[…] “It’s very clear from those numbers that the negative demographic spiral in which China finds itself is serious, is powerful, and will cause really large scale fundamental problems,” said Dariusz Kowalczyk, an economist at Crédit Agricole in Hong Kong.

Kowalczyk anticipates that the Chinese population will begin to shrink in 2027, which he says will “limit its share in global GDP” and its potential to challenge the US as the world’s leading superpower. [Source]

China is expected to face a 48% decline in population by 2100. At Quartz, Jane Li described how China’s looming aging crisis is a legacy of the one-child policy:

The continued drop in new births is a ticking time bomb for Beijing. Fewer births means less labor force supply, which in turn adds to the pressure on a pension system that relies on contributions from the working population. China had 254 million elderly residents aged 60 or above in 2019, according to the statistics bureau—that’s 18% of the whole population of 1.4 billion.

That number is expected to expand to 300 million by 2025, according to China’s ministry of civil affairs. Some research suggests a bleak conclusion: China’s state pension scheme could run out of funding by 2035 due to the shrinking workforce. That would be a huge issue for the Party, whose top priority is to maintain social stability.

[…] Meanwhile, the one-child policy that was in force for over three decades is still hindering the public’s willingness to have children, according to Liang of “The one-child policy consumed a huge amount of resources and funding, worsened the relationship between government employees [that executed the policy] and citizens,” he wrote. “Even though families are now allowed to have a second baby, it is difficult to change people’s notion of seeing one child as the norm…with the rising costs for raising children, the birth rate in China will continue to decline, and it will eventually become the country with the lowest birth rate globally.” [Source]

Chinese policy makers have proposed a plethora of ways to reverse the trend, but few have been well received by the public. At The Washington Post Lily Kuo reported on some of the harebrained solutions proposed by policy makers and bloggers:

In the face of reluctance to have children, some worry that authorities will turn to heavy-handed measures to encourage births. At a local legislative session in Shanxi province in January, Guo Xingping, the head of the Shanxi Province Reproductive Science Institute, called for increasing “the willingness of people of childbearing age” through education and matchmaking to “guide them to give birth in a timely manner” between the ages of 21 and 29.

A researcher from the central province of Henan called on the local government to encourage well-educated couples to have more children. Others said authorities should give property to couples for each new child, while some joked that scientists ought to begin researching artificial wombs for men. One financial blogger called for a tax on those who decide not to have children.

Still others have advocated for measures that would address stagnant wages and a lack of government support for families. Liu Hengwei, a gynecologist at the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University, said the number of births at the hospital last year was as much as 40 percent lower than in 2019. Liu said authorities should find ways to reduce the pressure on young people. [Source]

China’s birth rate decline is paralleled by a decline in marriage. At The Guardian, Helen Davidson and Martin Farrer reported that lower birth rates are, in part, both a product of newly emancipated women pursuing professional goals and a lack of policies designed to support mothers:

Zhang Lijia, a writer, journalist and social commentator, said there was a change in attitude and many women – especially urban-living and highly educated – no longer regarded marriage and parenthood as “necessary passages in life or the essential ingredients of a happy life”.

“In another word, it is about choice. Better education, higher income and more career options grant these women the freedom to choose a lifestyle they desire. They are assertive enough to resist the pressure from their parents to produce children. And the society is more tolerant than before.”

In women for whom it was less about the desire to be childfree, there were other societal roadblocks. Xiong Jing, a feminist activist based in China, said the social support system for new mothers was lacking, with inadequate parental leave, gender discrimination in the workplace, high expense and competitiveness in childcare, and social pressures on women to be the primary carer. [Source]

At CNN, Nectar Gan reported on the sociological background behind the decrease in marriage, and the side-effects of the one-child policy repeal:

“With increased education, women gained economic independence, so marriage is no longer a necessity for women as it was in the past,” Yeung said. “Women now want to pursue self-development and a career for themselves before they get married.”

[…] Increasing social acceptance of cohabitation and premarital sex, as well as the wide availability of contraception and abortion, has enabled young people to enjoy romantic relationships outside the legal institution of marriage. They see marriage as an expression of their emotional connection, not just a means of reproduction.

[…] Discrimination against women at work has also worsened since the relaxation of the one-child policy, as employers worry that women will now have a second child and take more maternity leave, said Xiao, the activist. [Source]

Although Chinese authorities fret about the decline, they often embrace policies that further drive down birth rates. In Xinjiang, Uyghur women have been subjected to mass sterilization campaigns against their wills. In January, CCTV condemned all forms of surrogacy during a celebrity scandal. The state mandated a divorce “cooling-off period” that prevents women from leaving their partners for thirty days. In January, just seven days after the law took effect, a woman who filed for divorce was hacked to death by her husband during the “cooling-off period.” Similar violence against women, widespread in China and captured in Tan Weiwei’s recent song “Xiao Juan,” may also discourage women to marry.


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