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Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

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Please have more babies. That’s China’s message for couples after decades of limiting most families to just one child. Why the turnabout? China is aging. China’s working-age population has been shrinking, and projections show that one quarter of the population will be 60 or older by 2030. This threatens an economic boom that’s been built on a vast labor supply, and there may not be enough able-bodied people to take care of all those seniors. Policy makers are increasingly concerned that drastic action is needed to face a quickly graying society.

1. What’s been done?

The Politburo decided last year to allow all couples to have a third child, five years after changing its one-child policy to allow women to have two. (Family-planning policies were totally stricken from a new Civil Code, leaving room for the government to scrap birth limits altogether.) The change to allow two kids worked at first: The number of newborns in 2016 was 17.9 million, a jump of more than 1 million from the year before. However, births dropped each year after that, to 10.6 million in 2021, the lowest since 1950. The fertility rate, or average number of lifetime births per woman, fell to 1.3 in 2020, far below the 2.1 needed for a steady population, excluding migration.

2. Is the population still growing?

Yes, but only slightly and it’s basically peaked. The government expects the population to continue at around 1.4 billion people for some time, according to the head of the statistics bureau. The share of the working-age population -- those ages 15 to 59 -- slumped to 62.5% in 2021 from more than 70% a decade ago. China’s annual population growth rate averaged 0.53% between 2010 and 2020, the slowest since 1953. It rose 0.03% last year.

3. Where did the one-child policy come from?

After the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the end of the civil war, the government trained tens of thousands of “barefoot doctors” to bring health care to poor and rural areas. The mortality rate plummeted and the population growth rate rose from 16 per thousand in 1949 to 25 per thousand just five years later. This prompted the first attempts to encourage family planning in 1953. Still, total population expanded to over 800 million in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, China was facing food and housing shortages. In 1979, its leader, Deng Xiaoping, decided to limit most couples to just one child. (There were exceptions for rural farmers, ethnic minorities and certain situations, like when a first child was handicapped.) It worked.

4. How was it enforced?

According to Human Rights Watch, China forced women to have abortions. Children born outside the state plan weren’t allowed to have their hukou -- a government registration needed to access some benefits. The one-child years left social scars. The traditional preference among Chinese parents for sons caused many parents to abort female fetuses, and the male-to-female ratio reached 120-to-100 in some provinces. The sex ratio for births has stabilized at around 105 in recent years, but in some regions such as Guangdong and the tropical island of Hainan, the ratio remains elevated at above 110.

5. What’s the solution?

Time and financial concerns mean that many couples feel they can only afford to have one child -- if any. Last year, the central government moved to relieve that burden, including trying to make education cheaper by wiping out the for-profit, after-school tutoring industry. It issued a guideline to reduce abortions while providing more support to women to raise children, and even began work on overhauling a decades-old law to better protect the rights of working women. Many “view multiple childbirths and successful career as fundamentally incompatible,” according to a study by Yun Zhou at Brown University. A commission created by the U.S. Congress found working women face “severe discrimination” from employers, especially surrounding pregnancy and maternity benefits. While allowing more than two children could increase the fertility rate, officials might need to build up medical services and schools and work out tax breaks for families first. At least 20 provinces had their own measures to boost fertility last year, according to the official Xinhua News Agency, from extending maternity and paternal leave to offering subsidies and providing baby loans.

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