The demographic winter has come early in China. The most populous country in the world is experiencing a decline in births. The confirmation comes with the new data released on July 24 last year of 29 Chinese provinces, which recorded the lowest number of newborns in the last ten years.
The unfortunate outgrowth
According to recently published figures, only Guangdong in the southeast of the country’s ten most populous Chinese provinces exceeded one million births last year, and in total only six of these had more than 500 thousand births in 2021. In some areas, however, recorded the lowest figure in the last 60 years.
As reported in an article published in the Global Times newspaper, which polled several experts on the subject, in the central province of Henan, there were less than 800,000 births, the first time since 1978, while the newborn in the eastern province of Jiangxi has not even reached 400 thousand, the lowest level since the 1950s.
The trend is therefore not particularly encouraging. According to the director of the Office for Population and Family Affairs of the Chinese National Health Commission, Yang Wenzhuang, China may enter a phase of demographic decline as early as 2025, the last year of the Fourteenth Five-Year Development Plan (2021-2025).
Prospects for reversing the trend are therefore poor, despite the policies Beijing has recently adopted to combat demographic decline and population ageing.
For the researcher from the Center for China and Globalization and demographer Huang Wenzheng, the latest data testify to how much the birth rate in China will continue to fall for over a century in the first tier cities. “The third child policy could alleviate some of the problems, but it is unlikely to reverse the trend in the short term,” Huang commented.
There are other data that photograph the situation of the Chinese birth rate. According to the National Health Commission, 41.4 percent of the 10.62 million new births last year are the second child of a couple, while 14.5 percent are the third child.
Reversal of Chinese births
China has recently changed course on family planning policy. Since last year, Chinese couples can have three children instead of two. China’s Communist Party introduced the new measure to offset the effect of the rapidly aging population and the feared economic consequences of the declining demographic trend, such as the few young workers capable of sustaining Chinese economic growth.
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In one fell swoop, the one-child policy, introduced in 1979 by the Beijing government to respond to worrying demographic pressures, was cancelled. The Chinese measure, which banned women from having more than one child for around 40 years, was abolished in 2016: the Communist Party’s hope was to register a fertility boost.
However, Beijing has not achieved the desired results. Young couples, especially those living in first-class cities (among the best known, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen), are forced to face various financial obstacles, such as the high cost of living, the increase in rent or house prices. and the competitive education system.
The Chinese government stepped in to relieve young couples who want to have a child of a financial burden, introducing “support measures” for families. Beijing is working to reduce education spending and redistribute state resources to lower costs in the real estate sector.
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But China also has to deal with the steady decline in marriages. Fewer than 8 million marriages were registered in 2021, compared with 13.47 million weddings celebrated in 2013, according to the report on Chinese marriages and families published last March by YuWa Population Research.
The “precious” son
The cost of giving birth and raising a child in China is so high that many parents-to-be are discouraged. Pregnancy and postpartum care have become an expensive expense for new mothers. National public health covers the cost of gynecological examinations, but many women prefer to go to private clinics, which are considered more efficient and safe, despite the high costs: each family pays over $15,000 for treatment in a private hospital.
However, post-partum costs are excluded from this calculation. Many wealthy families hire a personal nanny (in Chinese known as yuesao) for a few months, ready to accompany the new mother and her baby step by step: each nanny—who teaches breastfeeding, cooks for the mother, and cares for the baby—can earn over $27,000 per month.
Then comes school time for the favorite. The road to school is long and difficult and burdens the whole family ready to invest everything, both emotionally and financially. The Chinese student, who must stand out from the crowd, must excel in school and extracurricular activities.
Education is at the heart of social mobility and a guarantee of a rich future: Those who graduate from an elite Chinese university have 30-40 percent higher monthly earning potential than those who have attended other institutes. But it is a reservation reserved for wealthy parents, who, in order to make excellent training possible in various fields from an early age, enroll their children in private schools (whose tuition can reach 25 thousand dollars a year) and in tutoring and refresher courses. : a practice for all those families who, until a few months ago, spent over $17,000 a year on the education of their offspring.
There has recently been pressure from the Chinese Ministry of Education, which has put an end to the guidance institutes’ business: it will be the government that will set the price ranges for teaching and guidance in the examination. The goal is twofold: to reduce the financial burden on parents and to ease the pressure on students in what is the most competitive school system in the world.
Mathematics and the one-child policy
The decline in births in China is therefore the consequence of various factors: economic, social and political. And it is without a shadow of a doubt the legacy of unrestrained growth that China has experienced since 1979 with the “Economic Reform and Opening” program launched by Deng Xiaoping. The “little helmsman” had to face another unexpected challenge, which already presented itself at the end of the 1960s: an unprecedented demographic “bomb”.
The alarm was sounded by a professor at Stanford University, Paul Ehrlich, with his book “Population Bomb”, in which he predicted a world famine in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as other social upheavals due to overpopulation. Fears of a “population explosion” had already arisen in the 1950s and 1960s, but the book and its author brought the idea to an even wider audience.
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The alarming tones of the American teacher, although criticized, fueled the concerns of the Club of Rome – a non-profit organization founded in 1968 with the aim of starting a global discussion about the social and environmental crises that the world would face facing shortly thereafter – as he asked the various countries in Asia (especially India and China) to implement the right measures to curb the phenomenon of disproportionate population growth.
The appeals of the Western researchers did not go unheeded in China, which in these years was also obliged to recover a scientific and cultural gap with the United States. Deng turns to his scientists and entrusts engineer Song Jian to find a solution to prevent the population bomb from exploding and undermining China’s growth goals. Song used a mathematical model (of European derivation) that was the basis for the launch of the one-child policy. Based on assumptions about future trends, Song and his team of scientists performed calculations that determined the “ideal” population for China: in the next century, the country should host between 650 and 700 million Chinese, about two-thirds of the population. at the time.
To achieve this long-term sustainable goal, between the late 60s and early 70s, the scientist Song calculated that in order to quickly reduce the number of newborns, a limit should have been imposed: allowing each couple to have only one child for the next 40 years, after which demographic controls would gradually be loosened.
His thesis, promoted in a book published in 1985, “Population Control”, captured the Communist Party. The same one who had to face a human tragedy linked to the one-child policy, and who now has to fight to increase the number of newborns.