As China continues to grapple with a drop in new births coupled with a growing aging population, President Xi Jinping said on Oct. 30 that women should step up to help shape a “new trend of family.” Despite the global population exceeding 8 billion last year, China — the world’s most populous country — has seen its birth rate plummet in recent years.
Xi’s comments came to light in a publication by state-run agency, Xinhua, following a discourse with the new leadership of the All China Women’s Federation, which operates within the framework of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi expressed that “addressing the concerns of women” isn’t just beneficial for their individual growth, but is also tied to “family harmony, social harmony, national development, and national progress.”
He emphasized the urgency to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing and strengthen guidance on young people’s view on marriage, childbirth, and family.”
On Oct 31, data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics revealed that the country’s fertility rate had plummeted to an unprecedented low of 1.09 last year. Similarly, official data from 2021 indicates that China’s population increased by a mere 480,000 — reaching a total of 1.4126 billion.
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Now, as authorities race to reverse the crisis, demographers have warned that a “national decline appears inevitable,” as the country’s elderly population continues to grow while younger generations remain hesitant to have children, or start large families.
The reluctance of young Chinese women to start families can be attributed to multiple factors, ranging from prohibitive child care costs, potential career setbacks, and prevailing gender biases, to a reduced interest in marriage. It’s also worth noting that China’s birth figures are intrinsically linked to marriage statistics — primarily because current policies present challenges for single women who want children.
“From my own research, what I’ve seen is women often resisted and often prioritized their paid employment and prioritized their pursuit of individualistic ideals over this sustained incentivization,” Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told NPR News.
However, China’s Statistical Yearbook suggests that the plummeting birth rate could have profound repercussions for the nation’s economy. In addition to grappling with the economic strains of extensive “zero-COVID” lockdowns — which have paused industrial operations and forced businesses to close — China is also battling upheavals in its banking and real estate sectors.
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“The era of rapid growth, double-digit growth, of cheap labor, of a younger labor force – that era is now really at a close,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, as well as Khalifa University, in Abu Dhabi.
A race against time
To counteract the falling numbers, Chinese authorities have introduced a plethora of measures in the recent past, including financial incentives, bonuses, and a boost in childcare infrastructure.
Out of China’s 31 provincial regions, 13 witnessed more deaths than births in 2021. This list includes major financial and trade hubs like Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Tianjin. Also on this list are the agricultural heartlands of Sichuan, Chongqing, Hunan, and Hubei, alongside Hebei, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and the northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang.
In the northern province of Heilongjiang, there were only 3.59 births per 1,000 people in 2021 — marking the lowest rate in any jurisdiction. Meanwhile, with 8.7 deaths per 1,000 people, the region also had one of the highest mortality rates in the country.
Official data revealed that China’s population increased by a mere 480,000 to 1.4126 billion last year, representing the smallest growth since 1962 and a stark contrast to the 2.04 million increase in 2020. These figures signify the lowest number of new births since modern record-keeping began in 1949. Furthermore, the declines in at least six jurisdictions contributed to China’s national birth rate descending to 7.52 per 1,000 people in 2021.
Meanwhile, state-affiliated media outlets have consistently drawn connections between population growth and the nation’s overarching themes of “strength and rejuvenation.”