China officially approved a two-child policy in October 2015, ending decades of generally allowing families to have only one child (though there were many exceptions added throughout the years). Faced with a rapidly aging population, China’s government hoped the new two-child policy – coupled with a blitz of government propaganda encouraging more births – would help boost the birth rate.
Three years later, and that hope, as many experts predicted, is unfulfilled.
That’s not to say the two-child policy hasn’t made a difference. The birth rate did see a bump in 2016, the first year the new policy was in effect. The number of newborns that year jumped 1.31 million year-on-year, ending up just shy of 18 million. Still, that fell far short of government hopes that the number of annual births could top 20 million. And experts warned that the boom would be short-lived: couples who wanted a second child would rush to do so in the first few years, leading the birth rate to stabilize and then fall.
That happened sooner than expected. The number of births in China in 2017 was down by 630,000 compared to 2016. According to Xinhua, China’s state news agency, over 50 percent of children born in 2017 were not the first children in their families, suggesting that permitting a second child had indeed helped to boost the birth rate. But the new births were not enough to reverse the general trend of decline.
Zhai Zhenwu, the president of the China Population Association, believes the number of births in China will fall again in 2018 — and keep falling. According to China Daily, Zhai predicted that “the number of people born will undoubtedly continue to fall this year, as well as over the next few years.”
Part of this is simple demographics. The number of Chinese women of childbearing age (15 to 49 years old) is dropping by at least 5 million each year – and has been since 2011. “So even if the birth ratio remains the same, the total number of people born will keep decreasing,” Zhai pointed out.
But there are also cultural issues at work. Chinese commentators have pointed out that decades of the one-child policy irrevocably changed cultural norms regarding the desirable number of children. “The traditional notions of fertility that have developed over thousands of years are dying out after more than three decades of state-mandated ‘birth control,’” Mu Guangzong, a professor at the Population Research Institute of Peking University, wrote earlier this month for China.org.cn.
In an earlier article for China Daily, Mu explored this in greater detail:
The new ‘fertility culture’ — of couples having just one offspring or not having any at all — has had a great impact on our society… Women’s ‘fertility desire’ has drastically changed from being ‘eager to give birth’ to ‘don’t want to’ or ‘can’t afford to’ give birth.
According to Mu, the “overall ‘fertility desire’ in China is about 1.6 to 1.8, far lower than sub-replacement fertility rate.”
In addition to changing familial norms so that most women now only desire one or two children, China’s one-child policy had another unintended consequence: burdening a generation of only children with the sole responsibility of caring for their aging parents. That combined with rising costs of living, particularly in China’s megacities, has many young couples wondering if having a child – much less two – is a good financial decision.
Then, of course, there is the consistent trend seen globally that increasing development leads to lower birth rates. As Dr. Karan Singh put it back in 1974, “Development is the best contraceptive.”
These various sociocultural factors, according to Mu, are what led China to fall “into the low fertility rate trap.”
Mu and other Chinese experts have recommended policy options to help combat the declining birthrate: providing “financial incentives to encourage childbirth,” as well as more affordable childcare options and a generally stronger social safety net. But there’s a general sense that even such progressive policies won’t be enough.
As Zhai warned, citing the examples of Japan and South Korea, “[W]e should realize the fact that various measures designed to encourage births will not stop the dwindling birth rate.”