Mon. May 23rd, 2022

Before the coronavirus pandemic, China was already the center of the global baby bust – but the fall in birth rates has accelerated in the two years since the virus first struck.

China’s birth rate – the number of births per 1,000 people in the total population – fell by just under 30 per cent between 2019 and 2021, the largest two-year fall since the country’s Great Famine between 1959 and 1961. Just 10.6mn babies were born in China in 2021, the lowest number recorded since the Communist party took power in 1949.

John Wilmoth, head of the UN population division, said the fall in births reported in late 2020 was “inconsistent with the usual seasonal fluctuations in fertility” and “telling evidence” of the impact on birth rates of the pandemic. Disruption caused by Covid-19 is still being felt in cities including Shanghai where lockdowns have been imposed as part of Beijing’s zero-covid policy.

China was already teetering on the brink of population decline, according to many analysts. Decades of strict birth controls, along with women entering higher education and the salaried workforce, have transformed attitudes towards raising children.

“China is in an absolute fertility disaster at the moment,” said Darrell Bricker, author of Empty Planeta book about global population decline.

Demographers warn that if drastic measures are not taken to reverse this trend, the country’s population could halve by the end of this century, from 1.4bn people to 730mn, as forecast by one influential Lancet study. That creates a policy headache for Beijing: how to pay for the rising pension and medical costs of the elderly with the tax contributions of the shrinking working-age population.

Line chart of Mn showing Births in China

“The falling birth rate will result in fewer workers and consumers contributing to economic growth,” said Rory Green, chief China economist at London-based research firm TS Lombard.

Experts say the health and economic uncertainties wrought by the pandemic have forced couples to delay or forgo decisions to marry and have children.

There was a 12 per cent fall in the number of weddings, with 8.13mn registered marriages in 2020, which experts warn will have a knock-on impact on the birth rate because it is rare for people to have children out of wedlock.

Baby Bust: The Demographic Crunch

Global birth rates are falling, and the world’s population will begin to contract in the coming decades. The FT examines why – and whether policymakers can do anything about it.

Day 1: How the pandemic affected the baby bust

Day 2: China is at the center of global population crunch

Day 3: Can policymakers do anything about it?

Day 4: Learning to live with the economic consequences

China is tackling the largest surge in Covid-19 cases for two years. Cities across the country, including Shanghai, have imposed localized lockdown measures. Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the government’s pursuit of zero-covid will exacerbate low fertility and marriage rates this year. “Many young couples are scared of becoming pregnant because China’s lockdown measures are so strict,” said Yi.

“Without any warning, your apartment building or entire neighborhood could be locked down if a case emerges,” he added, saying this creates anxiety for pregnant women who need easy access to medical care.

But the sharp fall in births began long before the pandemic and owes much to China’s history of population control measures, according to demographers. Beijing’s longstanding one-child policy – which was imposed in 1980 and limited the number of children a couple could have to below the average of 2.1 needed for a country’s population to remain stable – pushed down birth rates.

Beijing dropped the one-child policy in 2016 but that did not reverse the demographic decline – the number of new infants born has fallen every year since then.

“This is a slow storm that has gained strength over the past few years,” said Wang Feng, an expert on China’s demographic change at the University of California, Irvine, in the US. He said the “historical footprint” left by the policy meant families have grown accustomed to having a single child.

As a result, most Chinese families have a “4-2-1” structure whereby parents who lack siblings support two sets of grandparents and one child, said Yi, who is a longstanding critic of the one-child policy.

“Chinese society has adapted to suit the one-child structure,” said Yi.

The country’s inflated house prices and expensive childhood education raise the bar for having a larger family, creating powerful economic incentives to have fewer children, he said. “The burden of looking after four grandparents means households do not have enough money to raise more than one child,” Yi added.

Xiao Ge, a 32-year-old high-school teacher in Yuzhou city in Henan province, recently found out that she is pregnant with a second child.

A woman holds a baby at a park in Beijing, China.
China dropped its longstanding one-child policy in 2016 but that has failed to reverse the country’s demographic decline © Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

“I’m worried about the financial pressure. Raising a kid burns through so much money, ”said Xiao. “Ordinary families like mine, with just enough money to get by, generally do not want to have a second or third child.”

Policymakers have tried to boost birth rates. Last year they increased the number of children couples are allowed to have from two to three. Incentives are on offer for parents who have more than one child, including cash payments and extended maternity leave.

Their efforts are having little effect.

“No government policy could move me to have a second child. You have to sacrifice too much of yourself to take care of a child, ”says Leah Zhao, a 31-year-old mother from Nanjing with one child.

Zhao is an example of the 4-2-1 family structure in action. When she was born in 1989, she was one of 24mn babies delivered in China. By the time she gave birth to her first child in 2020, the number of births had halved to 12mn.

Zhao, a former accountant, also cited social factors for her reluctance to have more children; she fears it will make it harder to find work.

“Employers will assume that I want a second child or that family responsibilities mean I can not work hard,” she said.

Zhao said her former employer asked female job applicants about their relationship status and whether they planned to have children. “They never ask men these questions,” she said.

Lu Pin, a Chinese feminist activist, argued that policies designed to boost the birth rate through cash incentives fail to address the reason women are reluctant to have more children. “You have to tackle workplace discrimination against young mothers before giving people certainty that it will not impact their careers,” said Lu.

But even greater equality between the sexes may not be enough to stem China’s demographic decline, some experts warn.

Women of child-bearing age [in China] today have been told throughout their lives to have fewer children, ”said Yi. “This kind of ingrained mentality cannot be changed overnight, by government policy.”

Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing

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