Access to low-interest home loans and low-income housing. Remote work. Flextime. Childcare for two-year-olds, and not just for kids aged three and over.
Despite these inducements designed to encourage potential parents, official statistics from Beijing indicate China’s birth rate continues to fall even though couples have been encouraged to have three children since 2021.
The shift has the government pivoting to embrace a “talent dividend” – fewer young people but educated to have skills to benefit China, rather than the old “demographic dividend.”
“According to the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, education, science and technology, and talents are the basic and strategic support for building a modern socialist country in an all-round way,” researcher Niu Jianlin told the government-affiliated China Discipline Inspection and Supervision News.
“This points out the direction for us to further improve the quality of the population and realize the transition from ‘demographic dividend’ to ‘talent dividend,'” Niu, of the Institute for Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
Earlier this month, information released from the China Statistical Yearbook 2022, published by the National Bureau of Statistics, showed 13 of the nation’s 31 provinces and cities experienced negative natural population growth in 2021. A year earlier, the figure was 11.
In 2021, the total number of births in China was 10.62 million, a record low in recent years, according to the bureau statistics in January. The net increase of 480,000 people in a nation of 1.4 billion was the lowest since 1962 when records began.
Yang Wenzhuang, the head of population and family affairs at the National Health Commission, told the Annual Conference of the China Population Association in July that there will be no growth by 2025.
“It can be predicted that China’s birth rate will continue to shrink for more than a century,” Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert and senior researcher at the Center for China and Globalization, told the government-affiliated Global Times.
But the country is not alone in experiencing a shrinking birth rate.
“The decline in the working-age population is an inevitable consequence of the modern demographic transition,” Niu, of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.
“In today’s world, most of the low-fertility countries that have completed the population transition have generally experienced or will experience the process of the working-age population from rising to falling,” she added, pointing out that China’s total working-age population still ranks first in the world.
Based on an analysis of the Chinese state-run financial media organization Yicai, the reasons for the natural negative population growth in different regions vary.
For example, in northeast China and some central provinces, urbanization and the outflow of young people seeking opportunities elsewhere contribute to the low birth numbers.
In addition, some regions with relatively high urbanization rates, such as Jiangsu, Shanghai, Chongqing, and Tianjin, have relatively low natural population growth figures.
Experts believe that the current political climate and economic environment make some Chinese people hesitate to have children.
Fu-Xian Yi, a senior scientist of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told VOA Mandarin that many Chinese families are reluctant to have kids because of high housing prices and declining income.
“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 are making it difficult for pregnant women and children,” Yi said.
“China’s economic growth is declining [so people worry about providing for offspring as incomes shrink],” Yi stressed, adding that the government still needs to boost policies that would offset the costs of childrearing.
In August, China’s National Health Commission finally announced its 14th Five-Year Plan, covering 2021 to the end of 2025, to combat negative population growth.
Chinese authorities targeted married women of childbearing age with inducements such as low-cost home loans or low-income housing, remote and flex-time employment policies, and allowing two-year-olds into preschools that once accepted only children a year older.
Seventeen of China’s national agencies, including the National Health Commission and National Development and Reform Commission, jointly announced policies that were geared to produce a baby boom.
Song Jian, the deputy director of the Population and Development Research Center, told Global Times on November 16 that encouraging couples to have children rested with implementing the measures announced in August.
They would provide “economic support, childcare services, and paid maternity leave,” as well as “the reasonable sharing of childbearing costs.”
Song, who is also a professor at Renmin University, said the measures would also be conducive to “a childbearing-friendly social atmosphere, focusing on family needs, and balancing work and family for childbearing couples.”
But the expense is not the only reason stopping potential parents from having babies, according to Lu Jun, the co-founder of Beijing Yirenping Center, a human rights nongovernmental organization in New York.
He told VOA Mandarin that potential parents see that “Public power in China is now increasingly out of check.”
He cited the regression of the rule of law and freedom of speech, growing control over the media, and the consolidation of political power. This was reinforced by the election of Xi Jinping to a third term as China’s president.
“It is now clear that the door to political reform has been completely closed. Young people question the future of this country,” Lu said.
It is not that Chinese couples do not want children. Instead, it is about having children in China. “They see China’s political and economic prospects [as] bleak [and that] may speed up the pace of emigration for their children to have a brighter future,” Lu said.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.