Baby steps

Why the government wants to boost the birth rate


Discuss a social or economic problem with people in cities like Beijing or Shanghai and you get tend to get a fatalistic response: “China’s population is too big”.

But while this explanation has been drummed into people for decades, the truth is China’s population isn’t big enough. More children are needed, and fast.

In the last two years the One-Child Policy has been replaced by a universal two-child limit and local governments have tried to get families to take advantage of the new rule.

Yet while the birth rate increased by 7.9% in 2016 to 17.86 million births, it fell by 3.5% last year. One explanation is that in the first year of the two-child policy there was a backlog of people who wanted a second child. By the second year, many had already acted on that wish.

This year then, China’s government is ramping up the pressure on it citizens to reproduce. An editorial in the People Daily’s earlier this month warned that “China’s demographic dividend has basically been used up”.

“A baby is not just a matter for the family but also a state affair,” it lectured. The government’s desperation to get birth rates up has led to some radical thinking, such as one suggestion by two academics at Nanjing University to tax those who don’t have kids. The widely-criticised proposal envisages everyone under 40 paying into a fund that parents could draw from when they have a second child. Only at retirement could those who have remained childless also draw funds from it.

This sparked controversy: the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV described the idea as “ridiculous”.

“Giving birth is the individual choice of a family,” it added, in direct contradiction to the People’s Daily.

Netizens complained of getting whiplash from the government’s 180-degree switch on population policy in the last two years.“Before 2016 I would have been fined for having an extra child. Now I can be fined for not having one?” asked one incredulous weibo user.“Stay out of my womb,” warned another netizen.

Part of the problem, say experts, is that the One-Child Policy – which was in force for about 30 years – has normalised the idea of only having one baby. Once fertility rates fall, it is incredibly hard to get them back up. During the same period the price of housing, education and medical care has risen exponentially, especially in first-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Ironically it is the successful, educated women that live in these metropolises that the government is particularly keen to get reproducing. In July China’s largest online tourism agency Ctrip said it was now offering female executives incentives of up to Rmb2 million ($290,284) to freeze their eggs. The Global Times quoted Ctrip’s executive chairman James Liang, as saying:“The shrinking population must urgently be solved. If we don’t encourage births, it will eventually threaten the country’s economic development and innovation.”

In provinces from Hainan to Liaoning local governments have extended legally guaranteed maternity leave, made it easier for women to take time off work if they are at risk of miscarriage and offered material incentives for having another baby.

Governments around the country are also offering incentives to couples to get married – because, as yet, single women can’t legally have children in China.

In June the northern province of Shanxi suggested abolishing all fertility limits in order to get the birth rate up. It pointed out that China’s previous population controls were still impacting today because there are not enough women of child-bearing age to produce the number of babies needed. At the height of the One-Child Policy many female foetuses were aborted so the family could have a boy. The outcome: there are millions more Chinese men than women today.

However, the two-child policy may be harming women’s career prospects because employers fear the cost of two sets of maternity benefits. Since 2016 women have reported an uptick in interviewers asking questions such as “do you plan to have a baby” and job ads for “married women with children” i.e. women who won’t need maternity leave. One survey by the employment website found that 75% of companies were more reluctant to hire women after the two-child policy took effect.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.