Fallout from decades of its one-child policy and changing social attitudes about family and marriage are driving a plummeting birthrate in China, experts have said, after preliminary figures this week showed a drop of about 15% in 2020.
Demographers and social commentators have said the reasons for the low birthrates include the high costs of housing and education, and growing rejection of marriage among young women. In 2019 the marriage rate hit a 14-year low.
The data released on Monday from the Chinese ministry of public security showed the number of new birth registrations in 2020 was 10.035m, compared with 11.8m in 2019. The 2019 figure marked the lowest point since the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949.
The registration figures – which do not necessarily reflect all births as some may be missed, hidden or delayed – also highlighted a continuing gender imbalance. Almost 53% of births were boys, with about 545,000 more born than girls.
The decline in births has prompted warnings for China’s economy as its population ages quickly without sufficient support for all elderly people. About one-third of the population is predicted to be aged over 60 by the year 2050, and a 2019 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the state pension fund was likely to run out of money by 2035.
Prof Peter McDonald, of the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, said the figures were the latest evidence of China’s demographic difficulties.
He said the ongoing impact from coronavirus would be relatively small because the birth rate has been falling for years and the total population was already on a downward curve, despite the lifting of the controversial one-child policy in 2016, which brought only a short-lived spike.
“It showed that the China fertility rate was reflecting what was going on in society, and that was that people only really wanted a small number of children,” McDonald said. “Even in areas where the one-child policy was not applied, the birthrate was low.”
McDonald said the one-child policy had instilled a negative feeling about children and created a situation where a low value was placed on being a parent.
“Secondly, there is a floating population of 200 million people who have to leave their villages and work in cities, leaving their children behind in the villages. That doesn’t place a strong value on the parent-child relationship.”
Lijia Shang, a writer, journalist and social commentator, said there was a change in attitude and many women – especially urban-living and highly educated – no longer regarded marriage and parenthood as “necessary passages in life or the essential ingredients of a happy life”.
“In another word, it is about choice. Better education, higher income and more career options grant these women the freedom to choose a lifestyle they desire. They are assertive enough to resist the pressure from their parents to produce children. And the society is more tolerant than before.”
In women for whom it was less about the desire to be childfree, there were other societal roadblocks. Xiong Jing, a feminist activist based in China, said the social support system for new mothers was lacking, with inadequate parental leave, gender discrimination in the workplace, high expense and competitiveness in childcare, and social pressures on women to be the primary carer.
“There is a term in China, roughly translated as ‘you raise a child like you have no spouse’, because the responsibility mainly goes to the mother,” she said.
“If China really wants to solve this problem they have to put more resources into it.”
Xiong also noted that having children was still strongly tied to marriage, both culturally and in policy, and suggested the government could increase access to reproductive services for single women and same-sex or unmarried couples.
“[The government] want the children, but they want it in a traditional heterosexual family.”
The government has tried to encourage couples to have more children, but a 2017 study found 50% of families with one child had no intention of having a second.
A full picture of 2020’s birthrate is expected in April, with the release of finalised population statistics from the national bureau of statistics, as well as the results of the 2020 census. But the figures are in line with recent trends, province-level statistics and regional expectations about the impact the pandemic has had on birthrates. Some cities and regions recorded drops of more than 25%, wrote Liang Jianzhang, an economics professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management.
“If the fertility rate cannot be increased significantly, this decline will not bottom out,” he said.