China wants more babies. Are their solutions cure-alls or gimmicks?
As China’s birth rate drops to record lows, both the government and individual actors are taking action to pull it up. But will quick fixes be enough to turn the tide?
News broke recently that China’s population fell for the first time in over 60 years due to a record low birth rate (around 6.77 births per 1,000 women or 1.7 children per woman). Many reasons have been suggested for why this is happening: the after effects of the one-child policy, unfair treatment of women socially and in the workplace, and the rising cost of living.
China is not the only country facing a replacement rate problem. Japan has had a birth rate below replacement since the 1970s. South Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Now developed Western countries such as the US, UK, Norway, Austria and New Zealand are seeing similar trends. In the next 100 years, many prosperous, industrialised countries will see their populations halved. So why all the focus on China?
China’s predicament is not unique. But its current position in the world is. When Japan’s birth rate started falling, it was already one of the world’s largest economies, with high development rates, an educated workforce, and a growing tech sector. Now, even as its population ages and fewer children are born, Japan's economy hasn’t crashed – in fact it's still one of the world’s most important economies. China, on the other hand, has only recently eliminated absolute poverty, and its economy – while large – is not yet developed enough to support more old people in retirement than it has young people working. A lack of social safety nets, weak institutions, and partially developed infrastructure and technology means that China is on the back foot and risks running out of time before falling off the population cliff.
The results could plunge China into economic chaos as local governments struggle to cover the costs of supporting elderly residents and businesses struggle to find enough workers to stay afloat. There would also be knock on effects for the rest of the world. The increasing costs of goods and manufacturing would mean higher consumer prices, which would push up inflation for the rest of us.
The Chinese government and CCP are actively brainstorming ways to avoid demographic collapse, as are smaller institutions and even individuals. But are any of their efforts enough to reverse the tide? Or is it too little, too late?
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Later, longer, fewer
Of course, China's most notable policy changes in recent years has been the abolition of the one-child policy and the introduction of the two- and now three-child policy. But just ‘allowing’ people to have more children realistically does not address the actual problems that people face. The cost of raising children, the amount of pressure and competition required to succeed in Chinese society, and women’s desire for better careers and independence mean that blanket policies like these will have little effect. And indeed since 2021, when the three-child policy was introduced, China’s population has only decreased, as has women’s desires to start families.
The CCPPCC, the consultative body tasked with coming up with innovative policy ideas to suggest to the NPC, has produced a few notable voices on the issue. For example, member He Dan has proposed a range of solutions for getting people having kids younger, such as the inclusion of university students in the national maternity scheme to a more flexible educational system. Another member, Professor Li Huacheng has come up with a few interesting ideas, like giving second and third children allowances, providing affordable housing for young people, making it illegal to fire pregnant women, and providing maternity insurance to cover the costs of childbearing. However, many of his ideas are questionable and some are just straight up problematic. In his view, media should focus less on ‘independent women’ and promoting ‘DINK’ (double income, no kids) lifestyles, the government should restrict access to abortions, and college campuses should hold events to promote marriage and having kids.
While his ideas seem overbearing to the average liberal westerner, they are simply a reflection of wider Chinese society. Most people do not have liberal views regarding love, marriage and children, which is why increasingly they avoid the issue altogether. The government is authoritarian and believes it has the right to interfere in the lives of citizens, so why not restrict people’s rights further to get the desired results?
Let’s get married…?
Another problem that the Chinese government faces is marriage. China’s marriage rate has dropped to an all-time low, and its divorce rate is going up. Younger generations are less and less interested in getting married and starting families. As a survey shows, 42% of young people are not interested in dating, finding it too expensive or emotionally draining. On Chinese social media, people blame the ‘hostile environment’ of soaring living costs, low job security, and the burden of childcare being solely placed on women as primary reasons that the marriage rate has fallen lower than ever.
People’s ability to get married is also being hampered by the expenses that go along with it. A report from earlier this year showed that some men are paying up to $100,000 in bride prices – a fee that is usually transferred back to the newlyweds in the form of clothing, furniture and other necessities. Nonetheless, it represents a man’s ability to support his family, a sum that is going up every year, beyond the average person’s reach. This is on top of other problems custom to Chinese life – filial piety, for example, means that those born during the one-child policy era have to care not just for themselves and their children, but also their ageing parents. In the case of a married couple with one child, they could be responsible for the well-being of up to 7 people.
In a Confucian society like China, the notions of getting married and having kids are still closely intertwined, while cohabitation, single parenthood and gay adoption (or being gay in general) are still frowned upon. So how can the government deal with falling birth rates if they can’t even get people down the altar? Attempting to deflect the cost of housing, some are promoting ‘Double Header Marriage’, where a married couple often lives with the parents of one side, stay with both in turn, or simply live apart, and raise their children separately. However, while this path may save on living costs, it does not solve the core issue of housing costs, and only increases isolation without encouraging more substantive changes to childcare provisions.
Desperate to tackle the problem head on, some embrace more traditional methods, such as visiting the Shanghai Marriage Market to arrange matches for their children. And there's the Chinese city that set up a database listing all the single residents to create a “closed-loop service system to help the young meet, fall in love, and get married.” One Chinese university made the controversial decision to provide priority access for marriage registration specifically on May 20 – a date that phonetically sounds like ‘I love you’ and is popular among those registering for marriage. 15 couples showed up for the group ceremony, and while the move sparked controversy online, it at least represents an attempt by an institution to promote a positive and supportive attitude towards marriage for people just starting out in life.
Another potential solution is stopping already married couples from getting divorced. According to one white paper, nearly 5,000 divorce cases handled by the Harbin Nangang District People’s Court since 2016 had been dissolved through mediation, the majority initiated by women citing “personality clashes” and “financial reasons”. Some have attributed this to the ‘cooling-off law’, which requires couples to wait 30 days following the filing to go through with a divorce. However, some have argued that while divorce rates fall, marriage rates have fallen in response as people fear it will be too hard to get a divorce at all.
Another solution may be making it easier for unmarried women to have children out of wedlock. In Sichuan, restrictions on single mothers receiving prenatal healthcare, paid maternity leave, and maternity insurance will be lifted for 5 years. While it’s not unusual these days in the West to have children out of wedlock, that doesn’t mean it’s without its disadvantages. When I was born, my mother was a single mother, and I know a few myself. Living on one salary as a single person is tough enough, but add a child to the mix and you ascend to a completely different plane of existence. My mother was a civil servant and lived in a one-bedroom flat that she owned, but often skipped meals and rarely went out to make ends meet. Today, women who work in managerial positions in private companies are struggling to even cover childcare costs due to inflation, and receive little help from the UK government. Society may not look down on single mothers in the same way they used to, but it doesn’t mean they’re holding them up either.
Unmarried Chinese women still cannot receive IVF or freeze their eggs. Maternity leave policies often leave single mothers out of pocket, and unwed mothers are often refused prenatal care and other benefits. At the end of the day, unmarried Chinese mothers are still looked down upon in society, and their children suffer as a result. There are few women who would want to bring that suffering down upon someone they loved, no matter how desperate they were to have a child.
A life worth living
China is not the only country coming up with innovative solutions to the baby crisis. Hungary for example has a policy to reduce or abolish the amount of income tax you pay depending on the number of children you have. Japan has tried subsidies for pregnancy, childbirth, and childcare. South Korea is literally paying people to have children. But do these policies get to the heart of the matter? Many have theories as to why birth rates are declining around the world: the price of motherhood is too high and women are no longer willing to pay it; people are more selfish and individualistic to care about the future of the nation; anti-natalist sentiment is winning out; the cost of living is too high and life is hard enough without adding the pressure of additional mouths to feed. The truth is, having children has always been hard, and will always be a sacrifice, especially for women. Those of us who have children and love them feel it’s a price worth paying, but many of us also understand why people on the other side think it’s not.
There is more to life than procreation, although I still believe that your job will never tell you it loves you, won’t care if you get sick or die, and increasingly won’t even look after you when you’re old. Perhaps a quiet, solitary life is preferable to many, though rising rates of loneliness, isolation and depression seem to determine otherwise. I am no one to judge other people’s way of life or their choices, and I don’t blame anyone for not wanting or having children (an important distinction, as laid out in a recent documentary). However, we will have to face the consequences of our actions. It may be old fashioned, but the family is an institution that has lasted aeons, and we risk the demise of the entire civilisation if people, businesses, and governments don’t realise that soon. Perhaps it’s already too late.
In a recent podcast, I discussed why I thought Peter Zeihan was wrong about his predictions that China would ‘completely disappear’ in 10 years' time. He had a number of arguments, but one of his main points was that China’s population would collapse so fast that 10 years of demographic change would be enough to bring the country to its knees. I still disagree with Zeihan, but one aspect of his flashy prediction holds true. If China is not able to solve its demographic crisis before the end of the century, all the progress it has made till today will be for naught, and the CCP’s dreams of national rejuvenation will never be achieved.
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Zeihan also makes the point that very large numbers of Chinese moved from farm to city in a short time, and that a small city apartment makes having a large family extremely stressful. On a farm, children can be a source of free labor; in the city they are purely an expense. That ties in with what I have read about the high levels of unemployment among young Chinese, especially among those who have no more than a high school education.