China's national birth rate dropped to 6.77 births for every 1,000 people last year – a record low and down from 7.52 per 1,000 in 2021. We explore the possible reasons behind the decline.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) announced on Tuesday something that was long expected but still shocked many: the country’s population in 2022 was down to 1.411 billion people, a difference of 850,000 people from 2021.
It was the first time that deaths had surpassed births in a very long time.
The last time China’s population saw a downward trend was in 1961, during the Great Famine which killed tens of millions and was “caused by former Communist Chairman Mao Zedong’s calamitous social experiment, the Great Leap Forward,” as Japan Times put it.
Experts agree that there is not one single cause for China’s population shrinkage.
So what are the contributing factors to the current situation?
China had long tried to control its population, with its one-child policy, introduced in 1980, and abandoned in 2016, when families were allowed to have two children. This scheme did not work as planned.
Chinese couples who had more than one child were punished, forced to have abortions, and the one-child policy led to more males being born (as boys were favoured) than girls. Even after the policy was reversed, the desired increase in childbirth did not materialise.
According to the BBC, “the country's birth rate … has been falling over the past six years to reach a record low of 6.77 births per 1,000 people.”
New generations, new views
Young people in China hold different beliefs than their parents and grandparents. Talking to Japan Times, the 37-year-old father of a three-year-old girl, Ding Ding, said: “People born in the 1980s or 1990s are not as keen to have children as our parents’ generation.”
He went on to say: “Our parents think if they have more children, they can get more care when they grow old. But the younger generation doesn’t think the same anymore, they have a different mentality. They think raising one child is already very tiring.”
Another Japan Times article points out that even with the Chinese government abandoning the one-child policy for two in 2016 and three in 2021, few couples felt the need to take it up.
Increasing cost of raising children
Beijing-based YuWa Population Research Institute found that the average cost of raising a child in China “stood at 485,000 yuan ($76,760) in 2019, nearly seven times the country’s per capita GDP,” the Sixth Tone website reported in February last year.
The institute factored in costs from pregnancy to birth to tuition to other related expenses until the child became an adult at age 18.
Sixth Tone pointed out that “Raising a child until adulthood in China is costlier than in countries such as the United States, France, Germany, and Japan”.
Even with the Chinese government easing the one-child rule and with providing incentives for young couples to have children, some are still sceptical.
Japan Times reports that some Chinese internet users were complaining about employers’ attitudes towards women and how they were reluctant to assign women to desirable positions because they are worried the women would take time off to have children and care for them.
“In the job market, they worry that if you’re 23-30, you’ll get married and have a kid, that if you’re 30-35 you’ll have a second or third one, and if you’re over 35, then sorry,” the Japan Times reported a user as saying.
“This kind of social setting is already the best form of contraception. All those policies to encourage births and open up will amount to nothing.”
Not all is lost, some say
UK-based Population Matters describes itself as a charity “working globally to achieve a sustainable future for people and planet.”
In a news release upon the revelation of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, Robin Maynard, executive director of Population Matters, said: “The Chinese government could better manage this inevitable transition through encouraging and mobilising an older workforce instead of obsessing about birth rate – and move from the pursuit of economic power to one prioritising wellbeing, for the good of its own citizens and for the world.”