Four years ago, Li Xueke decided to become a mother on her own. The Shandong businesswoman travelled to Thailand for a course of IVF. In July 2019 she gave birth to triplets – two boys and a girl.
Like many new mothers, she shared images of her children on social media, which later went viral. But she also received a lot of criticism – much of it from men – for “giving the children an incomplete family”. She defended her decision by claiming that “the most important thing is to give kids adequate love, whether the love is from the mother or father”.
In China, hospitals are banned from offering IVF (in vitro fertilisations) treatment to people who cannot produce a marriage certificate, which is why unmarried women like Li have to travel overseas for the same services. Even for those who are married, IVF is not easily accessible. Only women with specific medical conditions are permitted to freeze their eggs and any form of surrogacy is illegal. The procedure is also prohibitively expensive in China, taking it beyond the means of many married couples.
Concerned by a plunging birth rate and an aging population, the Chinese government now wants more people to have babies, however. And health authorities in Beijing have just announced last week that they will include 16 assisted reproductive technologies (ART) under the capital city’s public medical insurance scheme for the first time, as part of efforts to boost declining birth rates.
The new measures will cover procedures such as intrauterine insemination (IUI) and second- and third-generation IVF, starting on March 26. Reimbursements of up to Rmb11,000 ($1,740) could be available for second-generation IVF procedures, which cost around Rmb40,000.
Many expect other local governments to follow suit and release similar incentives. “To encourage people to have babies, Beijing is going all in,” is how Securities Times described the change in approach.
Some women were overjoyed by the news. “I have been married for seven years and have no children. I have actively sought fertility treatment and have spent tens of thousands of yuan,” one shared on social media. “I have been saving money for the past two years for IVF. But people don’t understand that many families struggling with fertility are just ordinary working class. It would lift such a heavy burden if infertility treatment could be covered by state insurance.”
Companies in the fertility business reacted favourably too. Honz Pharmaceutical, a firm with operations in assisted reproductive consumables, soared 20% in the A-share market. Hunan Dajia Weikang, which builds hospitals specialising in reproductive health, also saw its share price rise over 10% on the first day of trading after the news came out.
Shares in IVF company Jinxin Fertility, which is listed in Hong Kong, climbed 15% in a week. The Chengdu-based firm operates fertility clinics in Guangdong, Yunnan and Hubei provinces.
According to Jinxin Fertility’s own data, the proportion of couples in China that report difficulties having children was close to 18% in 2020, up from 12% in 2007. Even though that percentage is climbing, treatments are still hard to access. State hospitals handle the majority of fertility treatments, accounting for almost 90% of the licences for ART-related services. Yet state-run IVF centres are often overstretched and eligible couples have to wait months for a consultation.
Still, many queried whether the new measures would jumpstart a wave of new births. “If people can’t even afford ART, I wonder how they meet the costs of raising a child,” one queried. Some had other suggestions for boosting the birth rate. “Shouldn’t they regulate home prices or ‘996’ working hours, so that young people have time to date and the resources to buy a house? That seems a more basic response,” one wrote on weibo.
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