Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

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?

On May 31, the Politburo decided 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 stricken from a new Civil Code that took effect this year, leaving room for the government to scrap birth limits altogether.) It’s unclear when the new policy will take effect, or what the response will be. The change to allow two 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 12 million in 2020, the lowest since 1961. The average number of births per woman fell to 1.3 in 2020, far below the 2.1 needed for a steady population, excluding migration.

Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

2. Is the population still growing?

Yes for now, but it’ll peak soon. The government forecasts its population will peak at 1.45 billion by 2030, while a government-affiliated think tank said it could be as soon as 2027. State media said that it could happen as soon as next year. The share of the working-age population -- those ages 15 to 59 -- slumped to 63.4% in 2020 from more than 70% a decade ago. China’s annual population growth rate averaged 0.53% between 2010 and 2020, the slowest since 1953.

Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

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.

Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

5. What’s the solution?

It could be difficult to persuade Chinese couples to have more children. Time and financial concerns mean that many feel they can only afford to have one child, if any. For 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 they face “severe discrimination” from employers, especially surrounding pregnancy and maternity benefits. While allowing more than two children could drive faster fertility improvements, officials might need to build up medical services and schools and work out new tax breaks for families first. The Xinhua News Agency reported that “related support policies” would accompany the three-child policy change, and that China “will prudently lift the retirement age in a phased manner.” Immigration isn’t likely to be an answer, as China has strict limits on foreign workers. Labor shortages have pushed manufacturers in the Pearl River Delta, China’s export powerhouse across the border from Hong Kong, to invest in automation and robots.

The Reference Shelf

  • National Geographic shows how the one-child policy changed China in charts.
  • China specialist Yuwen Wu examines the birth rate crisis for the BBC.
  • The New York Times talked to working mothers in China about discrimination.
  • China is not alone: QuickTakes on lower fertility rates worldwide and how Japan is handling its shrinking population.

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