Births in China hit historic low, a political issue for Beijing

China announced on Monday that its birth rate had fallen for the fifth consecutive year in 2021, bringing the world’s most populous country closer to the potentially seismic moment when its population would begin to decline, and precipitating a demographic crisis that could undermine its economy and even his politics. stability.

The decline in the birth rate, coupled with the increase in life expectancy that has accompanied China’s economic transformation over the past four decades, means that the number of people of working age, compared to the growing number of people too old to work continued to decline. This could lead to labor shortages, which could hamper economic growth and reduce the tax revenue needed to support an aging society.

The situation creates a huge political problem for Beijing, which is already facing economic headwinds. Along with demographic data, the country announced on Monday that growth in the last quarter of the year had slowed to 4%.

China’s ruling Communist Party has taken steps to address the declining birth rate, easing its notorious “one-child” policy, initially allowing two children in 2016 and up to three since then. ‘last year. It also offers incentives for young families and promises to improve work rules and early education.

None have been able to reverse a stark fact: a growing number of Chinese women do not want children.

“China is facing a demographic crisis beyond the imagination of Chinese authorities and the international community,” said Yi Fuxian, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has long argued that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party underestimated the population figures.

The number of births fell to 10.6 million in 2021, from 12 million the previous year, according to figures released Monday by the National Bureau of Statistics. It was even less than in 1961, when the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s economic policy, led to widespread starvation and death.

For the first time since the Great Leap Forward, China’s population may soon begin to shrink. The number of people who died in 2021 – 10.1 million – approached the number of people born, according to figures announced on Monday. Some demographers say the peak may have already happened.

“The year 2021 will go down in Chinese history as the year when China experienced the last population growth in its long history,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, adding that the 2021 birth rate was lower than the most pessimistic estimates.

Other wealthy societies are experiencing a similar decline, although most experts agree that China’s situation has been complicated by the unintended legacy of the government’s “one-child” policy, which from 1980 in 2015 zealously controlled women’s reproductive choices.

While the goal of this policy was to slow the birth rate to promote economic growth, one of the effects has been that there are now fewer women reaching childbearing age. The government eased restrictions on family planning just as social and economic conditions were improving for women, who began to postpone marriage and childbearing. Many do not want children at all.

“I don’t really want to spend my savings on the kids,” said Wang Mingkun, 28, who lives in Beijing and teaches Korean. “Actually, I don’t hate kids,” she continued. “Actually, I like them, but I don’t want to breed any.”

Because the “one-child” rule has been a mainstay of Communist Party policy for decades, questions about its consequences have become politically strained. When a prominent economist wrote last week that the way to solve China’s falling birth rate was to print billions of banknotes, it was quickly censored online.

Ren Zeping, the economist, wrote in a research paper he posted on social media that if Beijing set aside the equivalent of $313 billion to help pay for incentives such as cash rewards, tax breaks for couples and more government child care, it solve the problem. “China will have 50 million more babies in 10 years,” he explained in a research paper he posted on his social media account.

When his suggestion sparked fierce debate online, his Weibo social media account was suspended for “violating relevant laws”.

Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, has proposed similar measures in the past, but not on this scale, choosing instead to act in a more incremental way to avoid highlighting the failures of previous policies.

More recently, Beijing promised to review laws banning discrimination against working mothers. He even banned tutoring in a bid to tackle soaring education costs and curb the competitiveness of young parents, which couples often cite as a reason for not wanting children.

Some of the government’s efforts have made the problem worse, sparking complaints and creating more anxiety around parenthood and marriage.

“Single women are increasingly reluctant to marry,” said Zheng Mu, assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore. “If you get married, you will have a more limited set of options.”

Couples settling down and starting a family must worry about access to the best teachers in a country where education is still seen as the main route to a better life. Parents spend most of their income on tutoring and educating their children.

Although authorities have made it illegal to discriminate against young mothers in the workplace, it still happens regularly, discouraging families who need a double income from having more children. And while women are encouraged to enter the workforce and told they are equal to their male colleagues, the cultural expectations in which they are seen as gatekeepers have not changed.

“Women are encouraged to achieve success in education and career,” Ms. Mu said. “But this change has not been well accompanied by changing gender dynamics in households.”

The National Bureau of Statistics announced the population figures on Monday as part of its report on the country’s economic growth. While overall economic output for the year grew 8.1% in 2021, much of that growth occurred in the first half of the year.

Ning Jizhe, director of the bureau, said low birth rates have become commonplace in many countries, citing Japan and South Korea. By 2021, he noted, the number of women between the ages of 21 and 35 — that is, those born at the height of the “one-child” era — had dropped by around 3. million.

While he said the pandemic had delayed marriage and births “to some extent”, he also noted the increased costs of raising children and other social factors.

He nevertheless expressed hope that China’s population would hold up in the future, citing the government’s decision last year to allow families to have up to three children. “The effect of the ‘three-child’ policy will gradually be felt,” he said.

He Yafu, an independent demographer from the southern city of Zhanjiang, disputed this.

“Basically, in a country with a large population like China, if the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths is only a few hundred thousand, it basically belongs to the range of zero growth,” he said. he said in a telephone interview. .

The trend, he warned, “cannot be reversed”.

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