China’s birth rate plummeted for a fifth consecutive year to hit a new record low in 2021, despite government efforts in encouraging couples to have more children in the face of a rising demographic crisis.
The world’s most populous country recorded 10.62 million births last year, or only 7.5 births per 1,000 people, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics — marking the lowest number of new births since the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949.
The number of births was just enough to outnumber deaths, with the population growing by 480,000 to 1.4126 billion. The natural growth rate fell to 0.034 percent, the lowest since the Great Chinese Famine took place from 1959 to 1961, killing tens of millions of people and leading to a steep population decline.
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According to a number of representatives attending the “two sessions” agenda-setting meetings that ran from March 4 to March 11, calls were made to lift all family-planning restrictions and step up “pronatalist measures” in efforts to boost the country’s precariously low birth rate.
With thousands of China’s political elites converging in Beijing to attend the annual parliamentary gatherings, a number of representatives have revealed their proposals to the central government addressing the nation’s worsening demographic crisis, according to a report by the South China Morning Post.
Huang Xihuan, a delegate to the National People’s Congress and a city government official from Huizhou in Guangdong Province, is among those advocating for Beijing to completely lift its birth restrictions as soon as possible as authorities scramble to come up with new resolutions to tackle dwindling birth rates.
“Despite only a minority of couples desiring to have more than three children, it is more in line with the country’s current situation to encourage births without any restrictions on the number of children a couple can have,” Huang said.
“China is at a critical transitional stage in which it is adjusting and perfecting its childbirth policies,” she added.
‘Three-child policy’ rolled out last year
In October 2015, the CCP rolled out the slogan “all families should have two children.” The two-child policy was promulgated in 2016, and in May 2021, was further broadened to allow three children per couple. As the government loosened family-planning rules and encouraged more births, the number of vasectomies performed fell from 149,432 in 2015 to 4,742 in 2019, according to official government data.
Demographic experts contend that, while the policy stipulates couples can have up to three children, in reality those who have more than three will not be penalized. However, couples who have more children are not currently able to claim additional benefits that come with childbearing – such as parental leaves, subsidies and other government assistance programs.
New births in 2021 dropped 11.6 percent from 12.02 million in 2020 — a gentler decline than the 18 percent plunge that year, from 14.65 million in 2019; however, serious questions have been posed about the veracity of China’s census data. Chinese demographers have warned that if the downward trend continues, China’s population could start shrinking soon and a growing elderly population could be set to overtake infants by 2040.
When the country’s one-child policy was implemented in 1980, for over three decades, men and women were forced to undergo sterilization in an effort to control the country’s booming population.
The policy was so stringenly upheld that many women were forced to have late-term abortions if they were found to be “illegaly” pregnant. Chinese authorities boasted that they prevented approximately 400 million births.
More and more couples in China opting not to have children
As China becomes increasingly industrialized, the costs and complexity of life have risen, making it difficult for even well-to-do families to have multiple children, and many are now choosing to still have only one child or remain childless altogether.
Younger couples have said they are already stressed enough juggling a grueling workload, having a social life and are barely able to keep themselves afloat, let alone having a child (or three). Meanwhile, older couples said the financial burden of having more children would simply be unmanageable.
Additionally, many female professionals fear that having more children would incur discrimination from employers reluctant to pay for maternity leave.
A preference for male babies in China has also resulted in a severe gender imbalance, with males outnumbering females in the country by approximately 35 million. This phenomenon has resulted in an increasing amount of Chinese men struggling to find a mate and more Chinese women opting to focus on their personal lives and careers instead of marrying and starting a family.