No more limits?

China is set to perform a big U-turn in population policy

A baby looks through the window of a vehicle stranded on a highway between Beijing and Hebei province, China, that is closed due to smog on an extremely polluted day

More babies required

The year 2021 will see China’s ruling Communist Party celebrate its hundredth birthday. It is also the year that the Party might have to finally undo one of its most intrusive policies – limits on the number of children people can have.

That’s because after another round of disappointing annual birth figures – released last week – it became even more evident that there are not enough fertile women to support population growth, even if they all have the currently permitted two children each.

Births in 2019 dropped by 580,000 compared to 2018. This has led demographers to call for an urgent relaxation of family planning policies – a move the government appears to be considering, based on a Party Central Committee communiqué released in October. “We will improve the quality of the population by optimising the birth policy,” it said.

For experts, the change cannot come soon enough because the number of fertile women is going to decline every year as the population ages.

“It is urgent to fully open up childbearing,” wrote Zhou Tianyong from the Central Party School in a government journal last year.

“The acceleration of aging will further increase the pressure of the economic growth slowdown, the burden of pensions will become more and more serious, and the pressure and risk of the financial system will continue to increase,” he added.

China’s infamous One-Child Policy was scrapped in late 2015 and an exemption that had previously allowed some couples to have two children was extended to all.

But the hoped for population bump never came to pass. In fact, after an initial increase, birth figures have decreased every year since 2017. Last year 14.7 million children were born, versus 15.28 million in 2018.

Experts now fear that even a total removal of family planning restrictions won’t be enough to undo the damage caused by 30 years of the One-Child Policy – which all agree is the underlying cause of China’s rapidly aging society.

According to Song Jian, a professor from the School of Social and Population Studies at Renmin University, the number of Chinese women of normal childbearing age (20-34) has dropped by 25% since 2000 to 124 million today.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many young people, especially young women, don’t seem to want to get married early, if at all (see WiC475 for our article on freezing eggs). And those that do sometimes need encouraging to have one child, let alone two (see WiC437 for more on factors that discourage giving birth, such as the lack of epidurals to lessen labour pains).

Experts posit there are some families, however, that would elect to have a third or fourth child – and that it is ridiculous to stop them, given the nation’s need for more young people.

This week the China Daily reported a key shift: the city of Guangzhou blazed a policy trail by saying it will no longer fire civil servants or staff at state-owned firms if they have more than two children.

Academics such as Li Jianmin of Nankai University’s Institute of Population and Development told the Southern Metropolis Daily that he expects a more nationwide shift in the ‘two-child’ policy to come in 2021 after the results of the 2020 census are announced.

But even after the rules change, it will still take time for views on having more kids to change.

“China must vigorously rebuild a culture of moderate fertility and family reproduction, and return to autonomy and freedom [for families]” opined Mu Guangzong, a professor at the Institute of Population Research at Peking University.

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