Cost of Raising Children in China is World’s Second Highest

China’s population decline looks set to continue despite the possibility of a traditional Dragon-Year “baby bump” and signs of a post-pandemic uptick in marriage rates after nine successive years of decline. A recent report from the Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute shed light on one key driver of the low birthrates: the disproportionately high financial burden of raising a child in China, against a backdrop of widespread economic pessimism and broader disillusionment captured in the pandemic-era catchphrase, “We’re the last generation.” At The Guardian, Amy Hawkins reported that the cost of raising a child to 18 years of age has now reached 538,000 yuan, or 667,000 yuan in cities. This amounts to 6.3 times China’s per capita GDP, roughly 50% higher in those terms than the equivalent burden in the U.S. or Japan, and higher than any other country except South Korea.

The report also addressed the opportunity costs, borne mainly by mothers, associated with having children. Between 2010 and 2018, the weekly time spent by parents on helping with their primary school-age children’s homework increased from 3.67 hours to 5.88 hours.

[…] Lijia Zhang, a writer who is working on a book about Chinese women’s changing attitudes towards marriage and motherhood, said that the high costs of education and housing made raising children financially difficult. “Many women I interviewed said they simply couldn’t afford to have two to three children. Some can manage one; others don’t even want bother with one.”

Zhang added: “Another equally important factor is changing attitudes. Many urban and educated women no longer see motherhood as the necessary passage in life or the necessary ingredient for happiness.”

[…] The YuWa report concluded: “The declining birthrate will have a profound impact on China’s economic growth potential, innovation vitality, people’s happiness index and even national rejuvenation … The fundamental reason why China has almost the lowest fertility rate in the world is that it has almost the highest fertility cost in the world.” [Source]

In an earlier article at The Wall Street Journal, Liyan Qi reported on the current demographic slump and its roots stretching back over forty years (when China introduced the now-repealed one-child policy), and briefly noted the YuWa Institute’s work and recommendations:

Four decades later, China is aging much earlier in its development than other major economies did. The shift to fewer births and more elderly citizens threatens to hold back economic growth. In a generation that grew up without siblings, young women are increasingly reluctant to have children—and there are fewer of them every year. Beijing is at a loss to change the mindset brought about by the policy.

Births in China fell by more than 500,000 last year, according to recent government data, accelerating a population drop that started in 2022. Officials cited a quickly shrinking number of women of childbearing age—more than three million fewer than a year earlier—and acknowledged “changes in people’s thinking about births, postponement of marriage and childbirth.”

Some researchers argue the government underestimates the problem, and the population began to shrink even earlier.

[…] James Liang, co-founder and chairman of travel service provider Group and a research professor of economics at Peking University, co-founded YuWa Population Research Institute, a private think tank focused on demographic and public policy analysis.

Liang estimated that China needs to devote 5% of its gross domestic product—roughly equivalent to its education spending—on direct subsidies to promote births and lower the costs of raising children in order for the fertility rate to recover to 1.4, the average rate of advanced economies. His company gives its long-term employees an annual cash bonus of 10,000 yuan ($1,406) for each of their children until they are 5 years old. [Source]

China Daily also covered the new report, including its recommendation that “China urgently needs to introduce policies to reduce the cost of child-rearing as soon as possible.” Some such policies are already on the table. But the government’s responses to the problem have also included more coercive measures, as Freedom House’s Yaqiu Wang wrote at The Hill this week:

Earlier this month, a woman in Sichuan province posted several videos online showing burn injuries on her body. She alleged that her husband set her on fire after many years of domestic violence. Local news reported that the woman had sought a divorce. Earlier this month, the news of a woman being killed by her husband during the “divorce cooling-off period” reignited a heated debate on the Chinese internet over a controversial clause introduced in 2021 that requires couples filing for divorce to wait 30 days after submitting their initial application and then reapply.

In recent years, facing a low birth rate and an aging population, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) decided that the solution to the country’s demographic crisis is pushing women back home to have babies and assume the role of caretakers. Making divorce harder is just one of the party’s strategies.

[…] Since President Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, crackdowns on feminist voices have become increasingly stringent. Online censors have shut down many popular women’s rights publications and removed countless social media accounts and posts. An article that criticized a skit on Lunar New Year Gala, the biggest TV show in China, for its degrading portrayal of middle-aged women was swiftly removed after it started to circulate widely. Offline, authorities have relentlessly harassed and surveilled women’s rights activists, driving some into exile. Huang Xueqin, a journalist and #MeToo activist, has been detained since 2021 on charges of inciting subversion of state power.

Accompanying the censorship and intimidation is the CCP’s constant propaganda promoting traditional values and denouncing feminism. “Extreme feminism has become an internet cancer!” declared the Communist Youth League, the CCP group tasked with indoctrinating Chinese youth. President Xi himself has long urged women to return to traditional roles. In a November speech, he called for government officials to promote a “marriage and childbearing culture,” and to influence young people’s thinking on “love and marriage, fertility and family.” [Source]

An essay translated by CDT in early 2021 expressed concerns over the cooling-off period after the killing of Kan Xiaofang by her violently abusive husband. Last year, CDT translated excerpts from two interviews with former sports journalist Yi Xiaohe, whose book “Salt Town” details the prevalence of domestic violence in a small town in rural Sichuan province. Other related CDT coverage includes reports on women’s reactions to pressure to raise children, the shuttering of online feminist groups, and ongoing #MeToo cases of sexual harassment and assault. For more on women’s rights amid the ongoing natalist campaign, see our December 2023 interview with Leta Hong Fincher on the tenth-anniversary edition of her book Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.

Much of the financial burden of raising children comes from the costs of helping them keep up in a fiercely competitive educational race with their peers. At Rest Of World earlier this month, Caiwei Chen looked at the growing popularity of “AI-powered” educational tablets, despite the devices’ high cost and dubious effectiveness:

Tech companies like iFlytek and Baidu are now part of a growing industry leveraging AI to build tablets designed for learning. The iFlytek T20 Pro — the model Yang bought for her daughter — looks like an iPad but runs a modified version of Android. The device’s software is locked, which means children can’t download games or use other forms of entertainment. Instead, it comes with an array of apps that leverage Xinghuo, iFlytek’s large language model AI. These include a chatbot to converse with students in English, a gamified quiz tool to analyze test results, and OCR (optical character recognition) software that claims to be able to scan and grade handwritten essays like a teacher would.

[…] Another factor driving the demand for educational tablets is a government clampdown on tutoring. China’s after-school educational system is an enormous business: 137 million students took some form of out-of-school class in 2016. In an attempt to alleviate the pressure that students and parents face, the government ordered a review of 124,000 offline and 263 online education firms, and revoked the licenses of 96% of offline businesses and 87.1% of online ones. But while the supply of tutors is decreasing, the demand for them is as high as ever. Chen Hengyi, a primary school teacher in Wuhan, told Rest of World that almost all of the above-average students in his class still receive tutoring. That demand is causing prices for tutors to shoot up, forcing some parents to turn to alternative solutions for additional education — like AI tablets.

[…] Parents are sometimes pressured into purchasing these tablets by the school their children attend. Two parents interviewed by Rest of World claimed that teachers and school officials have pushed them to buy the tablet, by incorporating it in daily teaching. Despite the Chinese government’s 2022 ban on the compulsory sale of educational devices in schools, such mandates have persisted under the radar. The anonymous iFlytek sales agent told Rest of World that some schools have circumvented direct sales by imposing a “subscription fee” for tablet use on parents, who are billed every semester. [Source]


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