“Of all things in the world, people are the most precious,” Mao Zedong said soon after taking power, believing China needed more soldiers and workers. The advent of peace saw the population rocket from 540 million to 969 million over the next three decades. Authorities abruptly switched to curbing births and brutally implementing the “one-child” policy.
These days, most Chinese couples are curtailing their families – or going without – by choice. The population now stands at 1.4 billion; a sixth of the global total. But last year’s birthrate was the lowest since 1949, and the rate of population growth the lowest since the Great Famine six decades ago. The pandemic has seen dramatic drops in births in many places. But in China, the shift is part of a pronounced long-term trend. Several experts believe that last year marked the population peak.
Numerous Asian countries face a population crisis; South Korea has the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.9%, far below China’s rate of 1.3%. (The replacement rate is around 2.1%.) But Chinese leaders continued to impose tight restrictions long after demographers urged them to ease off. Relaxing the rules – permitting couples two children, and last year three – came too late. Now Beijing is scrambling to persuade people to have more children (though not in Xinjiang, where there are reports of Uyghur women being forced to have abortions and sterilisations, and the birthrate has almost halved).
About one-third of the population is predicted to be aged over 60 by 2050. A 2019 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the state pension fund was likely to run out of money by 2035. Some analysts suggest this demographic timebomb may prevent China from overtaking the US as the world’s largest economy. The problem is exacerbated by China’s heavily skewed sex ratio at birth, which was worsened by the one-child policy: the country now has 30 million more men than women. Young women also seem to be opting out of marriage: a survey of 18- to 26-year-old urban residents by the Communist Youth League found that 43.9% of women had no intention of getting married or were unsure whether it would happen. The discrimination mothers face at work appears to be a significant disincentive.
The government has banned expensive private tutoring and promised increased affordable childcare; such policies may appeal given growing concerns about the cost of living. But a recent report suggested that Beijing would have to spend around 5% of GDP on incentives if it wanted to see the fertility rate reach 1.6%. The concern is that the state may give up on persuasion. In a system overwhelmingly run by men, the declining fertility rate and concerns about unwed men have already led to the promotion of conservative “family values”. The state feminist organisation has for years encouraged young women to focus on marriage and motherhood. More recently, the government has introduced a 30-day cooling off period for divorces. Now men are reporting finding it harder to obtain vasectomies, and recent guidelines saying local governments should try to reduce the number of abortions for “non-medical reasons” have sparked fears of reduced access.
There are not only more humane but more effective ways of dealing with the falling birthrate. China has no appetite for immigration. But it should redouble its pursuit of increased automation, household registration reforms, better rural education and a higher retirement age, with better conditions for workers. Beijing seems to see its population as a commodity to be managed. But the abuses of the one-child era should not be replaced by pro-natalist infringements of people’s rights.