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50 Million Chinese Reportedly Infertile, Prompting State Interest in ‘Assisted Reproduction’

Born and raised in China, Lucy Crawford has been living in Canada for over 20 years. She has great sympathy for Chinese and human suffering in general. With a Master's degree in Education and having worked on various professions, she now translates and writes about stories in ancient and modern China. She lives in Calgary with her husband and four children.
Published: December 2, 2021
China's government used to enforce abortion for those who violated the one-child policy. Now, it is trying to bring back the birth rate. (Image: Joe Whittingham via CC BY-SA 2.5)

Officials in China have released data showing that the number of infertile couples in the country have exceeded 50 million, a record high. In order to solve its worsening population crisis, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plans to add more assisted reproduction facilities in 12 provinces, a move that has sparked public concern.

CCP: More than 50 million experiencing infertility is ‘extremely concerning

Recently, the topic of “provinces planning to add assisted human reproduction institutions” has been a trending topic across social media in China, raising concern and discussion. According to mainland media reports: 12 provinces, including Shanghai, Hebei, Henan, Tianjin, Guizhou, Anhui, Shaanxi, and Shanxi, have issued a “Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Plan (2021-2025)”, with Sichuan requiring an increase of up to 20 facilities in 5 years, followed by Anhui Province, Shaanxi Province, and Jiangsu Province, planning to add 10 new facilities.

According to data released by the National Health Commission, as of June 30, 2020, there were 523 legal “reproductive assistance institutions” in China.

Information released by the China Population Association and the National Health Commission shows the infertility rate among couples of childbearing age in the country has climbed from 2.5 percent to 3 percent in 1995 and from 12 percent to 18 percent between 2007 and 2020. At present, there are about 50 million people experiencing fertility issues. This figure is still on the rise. 

The Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) passed a resolution on May 31, allowing families to have three children. Several new policies were also put in place to encourage younger couples to have more children. However, these new reforms have failed to address the growing problems of an increasing elderly population.

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According to the official website of China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the birth rate in 2020 was recorded at 8.52 births per every 1,000 people. This was the first time the birth rate had fallen below one percent, a new low not seen since 1978.

At the same time, in 2020, the number of officially registered marriages totaled 8,143,300, 1.13 million fewer than in 2019. It was also the seventh consecutive year of decline since 2013 when the number had reached 13,469,300 new registrations. 

The situation is so dire that in September 2021, the CCP’s official media propaganda began widely promoting assisted reproduction facilities and In-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments.

However, a large number of people in the country have not been receptive to this idea. 

Some have criticized that a slew of problems ranging from heavy pollution, unhealthy food, and work pressures are main factors causing infertility in people. Others have mentioned that IVF has a low success rate, is expensive, and inflicts pain on women.

Dr. Fuxian Yi, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, told the Guardian that while the CCP is adopting reforms similar to what the Japanese government did in the past to encourage childbirth, the country is not as wealthy as Japan and cannot provide free medical care and education for its citizens. 

He argues that the CCP will have a tougher time solving the population crisis than the “reform and opening up” policy it carried out in 1979. He also believes that with economic development, China’s birth rate will only continue to decline. This dwindling new birth rate coupled with rising living costs will lead to a sharp drop in its population and an even more severe aging problem.

He further pointed out that, unlike developed countries, China’s economy was like an airplane that was still in the air but rapidly running out of fuel. The growing shortage in the labor sector would prove disastrous for the Chinese economy and may even have repercussions on the global economy.

“To make fundamental reforms, the CCP must consider the socio-economic implications … I’m not sure it has that kind of courage,” Yi said.

China’s fertility rate likely lower than Japan’s

Population issues have become sensitive topics in China. 

On May 11, 2021, China’s State Council Census Panel and the National Bureau of Statistics released the 10-yearly census report. Data showed that China’s population exceeded 1.4 billion in 2020, with 12 million new births in that same year.

The 2020 figure was down 18 percent from 2019 and down 33 percent from 2016 when the two-child policy was first introduced. It became the lowest year for new births since the inception of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

Meanwhile, China’s fertility rate for women of childbearing age was reported at only 1.3 percent in 2020.

Jianzhang Liang, executive director of Trip.com and columnist for the “Population and Economy” of Caixin, wrote that the staggeringly low fertility rate was very alarming in and of itself. 

“What is even more frightening is that the fertility rate of 1.3 isn’t stable/normal and will continue to decline in the future. Because this fertility figure also includes the pile-up effect of the two-child policy, which is fading away.”

Liang believes that China’s population crisis is the most serious in the world, and that “China’s birth and fertility rates will only continue to decline in the next decade.” 

“Without strong policy intervention, China’s new births are likely to drop below 10 million in the next few years. The fertility rate will be even lower than Japan’s, and perhaps the lowest in the world,” he wrote.

Facing a double crisis

The CCP’s “one-child” policy, which began in the late 1970s, hasn’t only created a serious imbalance in the gender ratio between men and women, but has also severely impacted the labor force.

Bloomberg reported that China was paying a huge economic price for its 36-year old “family planning” policy. State-run media The People’s Daily, issued an editorial urging Chinese citizens that having a baby is no longer a family matter, but a “matter of national responsibility.”

In 2021, BBC cited a census report that China’s elderly population of 60 and older was 264.02 million — or 18.70 percent — up 5.44 percent from 10 years ago.

It is important to note that China is the only country in the world with a population of more than 100 million elderly people. In comparison, the 200 million figure is equivalent to the total population of Indonesia and exceeds the populations of Brazil, Russia, and Japan respectively. 

Yue Su, chief analyst of China at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), has said that even with the new introduction of the three-child policy, the Chinese government has not been able to reverse the course of its rapidly declining birth trend.

Alina Wang contributed to this article.