Shrinking Birth Rates Accelerate China’s Demographic Crisis

While Xi Jinping may profess confidence that “the East is rising and the West is declining,” China’s birth rates are rapidly diminishing. Recently released official statistics suggest continued deepening of looming demographic crises that the government has struggled to avert through various attempts to incentivize marriage and procreation. The endurance of restrictive COVID-19 policies and a floundering economy compound China’s challenge of fostering a more sustainable demography. At the South China Morning Post, Luna Sun reported that over a third of China’s provinces saw their populations shrink last year:

Among China’s 31 provincial-level jurisdictions, 13 reported more deaths than births last year.

[…] And for at least six of the jurisdictions, the population declines were their first in modern history. This helped drive China’s national birth rate down to 7.52 per 1,000 people in 2021 – the lowest rate since record-keeping began in 1949.

[…] Official data shows that China’s population grew by just 480,000 to 1.4126 billion last year – the smallest population increase since 1962, and a sharp decline from the 2.04 million increase in 2020.

Chinese mothers gave birth to just 10.62 million babies in 2021 – an 11.5 per cent decline from 2020. [Source]

At Sixth Tone, Yang Caini described the geographic distribution of these statistics on declining birth rates:

China’s three northeastern “Rust Belt” provinces — Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning — have been experiencing negative population growth for several years, but this trend is now spreading into the country’s more developed areas. 

In 2021, several regions saw their populations shrink for the first time, including Hunan, Hubei, Jiangsu, Tianjin, Shanxi, and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

[…] Xu Jian, a demographer, previously told Sixth Tone that China may need to brace itself for the possibility that the country’s population decline “cannot be halted.” [Source]

Increasing marriage rates has been an important goal for the government to increase births, but COVID-19 policies have become an obstacle. Incessant, unpredictable, and interminable lockdowns have prevented many young people from going out to socialize. “This constant uncertainty is exhausting. I want to go out, to see the world,” one young woman told Le Monde in frustration. Liyan Qi from The Wall Street Journal described how China’s COVID-19 controls hurt its push for more weddings

During the second quarter of the year when lockdowns to stem Covid outbreaks rippled across China and many local registrar offices temporarily closed, marriage registrations dropped 20% from a year earlier, according to data released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

The drop for the first half of the year was 10%, for a total of 3.7 million marriage registrations, the lowest six-month number since 2007, when the ministry started breaking out quarterly marriage data.

[…Yi Fuxian, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,] estimates that China’s Covid prevention measures have caused a reduction in births by about one million over the course of 2021 and 2022 and expects the policies to hurt birth numbers in 2023. [Source]

Employment issues have also made it harder for young people to think about marriage. Restrictive pandemic policies have pushed local governments into fiscal deficits, and the ensuing austerity measures hit young civil servants hard. Some have suffered salary cuts of 30 percent even while forced to work overtime to implement virus-control policies, making it markedly less affordable to start a family. Gao Feng from VOA reported on other pandemic-related, systemic obstacles to marriage and procreation:

Fu-Xian Yi, senior scientist of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told VOA Mandarin that many Chinese families are reluctant to have children because of high housing prices and declining income.

Yi said, “China’s housing prices are too expensive, which makes it difficult for ordinary people to raise children. The employment rate has fallen, and the unemployment rate has increased. The policies for COVID testing and quarantinization are making it difficult for pregnant women and children. China’s economic growth is declining,” so people worry about providing for offspring as incomes shrink. [Source]

Finding the right incentives has been particularly difficult for the government. Many Gen-Zers are increasingly prone to view marriage with skepticism: respondents to a recent survey by Sixth Tone expressed a “fear of marriage,” describing it as “unnecessary,” “optional,” “a piece of shit,” and “whatever.” In one recent development that might help change these attitudes, the government amended the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women, which among other measures adds protections to female employees’ birth rights. In another related development, a city in Guangxi recently announced a policy to provide childbirth subsidies to unmarried mothers, who are traditionally excluded from such incentives. 

Demographic shifts are also affecting the older end of the population spectrum. As Alexandra Stevenson and Zixu Wang reported for The New York Times on Tuesday, “China’s grandparents are done babysitting and ready to go viral” by challenging traditional views about aging and happiness:

With more than 260 million residents over 60, China has the largest, and fastest-growing, population of old people in the world. Nearly half are online, where some choose to live out their professional dreams, while others are simply having a little fun. Many find companionship through their fans, an antidote to an otherwise lonely life. They are among a new generation of Chinese retirees who have fewer grandchildren than those before and the financial freedom to pursue hobbies and share their experiences online.

[…] “For previous generations, their lives were more confined to within the family, watching TV and taking care of children,” said Bei Wu, a professor of global health at New York University. “But now this generation, because they have less grandchild-raising responsibilities, they have more leisure time, their scope of activity is beyond the family, and so the role of their friends and social lives is greater.” [Source]


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