16 February 2019
Although China has ended its one-child policy, observers don't expect a big baby-boom in the country. Photo: Reuters
Although China has ended its one-child policy, observers don't expect a big baby-boom in the country. Photo: Reuters

China’s biggest headache: Not enough new babies

China saw 16.55 million babies born in the country last year, a decline of 320,000 compared to 2014. For this year, the government has projected an increase of one million in new births over the 2015 level.

Authorities have relaxed the long-standing one-child policy, with couples now allowed to have two children.

While the rules have been eased, we cannot expect a dramatic surge in the number of births. Officials had once expected 17.5 million to 21 million new babies annually during the 13th Five-year period, but it now seems that figure each year won’t even reach the lower end.

China has gone through two baby-booms since 1949, one in the 60s and one during the 80s. During the second baby-boom, the number of new babies born in a year even soared to 25 million. However, the births started to fall back since then.

Fertility rate in China has declined to 1.55, far below the world’s average of 2.5 and even lower than the 1.8 in OECD nations.

Generally speaking, a nation’s fertility rate has to reach 2.1 in order to avert a situation of population contraction. As for China, it should have an even higher fertility rate due to its severe gender imbalance.

Currently, developed nations like UK, US and Eurozone countries all have higher fertility rates than China. China is getting old before it’s getting rich.

Chinese authorities have been criticized for slow action in removing the one-child policy. Beijing has realized this and relaxed the rigid one-child policy. But it may be already too late.

In fact, the one-child policy is no longer the biggest barrier to a rise in new births. Many people in China simply refuse to have babies or even get married. The nation’s marriage rate dropped to 9.58 in 2014, down 0.34 from 2013.

There are many reasons behind the low marriage rate. Marriage costs are rising, and many people no longer consider getting married as a must-do thing. Also, society has become more tolerant to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.

Besides, environmental pollution, lack of confidence in the nation’s healthcare, education and political systems also hold people back from having children. Couples’ decisions on kids more or less reflect their views toward the world and the future.

Government officials explain that 2015 was the year of goat, which is considered unlucky in Chinese traditional culture. That’s why many parents avoided having babies last year, the officials say.

That argument, however, falls flat, given that China witnessed birth increases in the previous two years of the goat, namely 1991 and 2003.

Now we will be entering the year of monkey after the second-child policy was put in effect from January 1.

While births will rise, the projections of authorities may however be too optimistic. 

The population target for the 13th Five-year period is likely to be missed as the number of new babies will lag expectations.

China might suffer negative population growth sooner than 2030 and see a repeat of the plight suffered by Japan, which has been beset by aging population and sluggish economic growth.

Beijing will need to focus more on birth figures, rather than GDP growth, exports or bad loans.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 25.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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