Chinese people are refusing children. Statistics show that even though the Communist Party gave the go ahead for a third child to be born, fewer people are considering procreation. At this rate, China’s population will be 48% smaller by the end of the century, and even Nigeria will surpass it. RT consulted with experts to learn why this is happening and find out whether a lack of people could interfere with the ambitious plans of the world’s most populous country.
China’s birth rate has fallen below the level of the Great Famine during Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. Data from the PRC’s National Statistics Bureau indicate that only 10.62 million Chinese were born in 2021. With a population of 1.4 billion people, the country’s average birth rate of 7.52 per 1,000 people could be called shockingly low.
However, China’s mortality rate is slightly higher than China’s birth rate. In 2021, it will be 10.1 million. So, China’s population is still growing, but the trend over the last five years speaks for itself. As an example, 12 million Chinese mothers were able to give birth in 2020 to 12.65 million kids, rather than 14.65 million in 2019. Most likely, the population of the People’s Republic of China will already see a decline in 2022.
As Alexander Lomanov, deputy director of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences (IMEMO), noted in an interview with RT, over the course of history, the same phenomenon can sometimes be seen repeating itself, but for completely different reasons – and this is one such case.
“If, during the difficult years of the Big Leap, China’s population fell because life was very bad, now China’s population is set to decrease because life has become very good. This paradox is amazing. China has once again proved that Western stereotypes regarding Eastern civilizations – that their populations instinctively reproduce to the detriment of their material quality of life – are wrong, and that the general demographic laws by which humanity lives also apply to China,”Lomanov stated.
A year ago, sociologists at the People’s University of China linked a sharp drop in the birth rate to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. RT experts agree that the covid factor may have added to the reluctance of Chinese to produce offspring, but it definitely can’t be considered the main one.
It’s too late to change course
The Communist Party’s former ‘one family, one child’ policy, which was adopted in 1979, is often cited as one of the reasons for China’s current demographic crisis. At the time, it was thought that countries with high fertility (6 average children per woman) would have to impose such restrictions to ensure there were enough water and land for all.
This policy allowed Chinese citizens to have only one child in a family or two if they had a first child.
Those who violated the rules were fined four- to eight-months’ pay and dismissed from work, and the Western media reported that local officials sometimes forced pregnant women to have abortions, or even had them forcibly sterilized.
But, much was dependent on rules that were in place for a specific region. One example: Before restrictions were removed, Beijingers and others could have two children even if they were not the parents of the other children. Birth control wasn’t as strict with minorities.
The rules were in place for 30+ years. In 2014, media reports claimed that Zhang Yimou, a world-famous director and wife of Chen Ting was ordered by Wuxi to pay $1.2 million in restitution for three unmarried children. Zhang accepted his punishment and apologized.
However, only the richest could afford to pay such high fines and take risks. A large number of unaccounted-for people arrived in China during this time. Undocumented individuals faced difficulties in getting a school education for children and obtaining employment as adults. Moreover, as boys are traditionally much more valued in China, if the first-born child was a girl, she was sometimes killed, which further exacerbated the country’s gender gap.
The only children who received a lot of attention from their family were those with bratty personalities. They were also under pressure to fulfill parental expectations. The middle class was growing and children started to go to sport schools and other extracurricular activities. Many students spent up to 12 hours studying each day. Due to the huge workload, these ‘little emperors’ often found their health destroyed by the age of 10 or 11. Nearly all of them had poor vision as children.
The ‘one child’ policy prevented 400 million Chinese from being born over 36 years, which helped the country get out of poverty and raise the average standard of living. But by the 2010s, the authorities realized that this policy was not suitable for a modern society or the goals of the state… and perhaps a lot later than they should have.
China abandoned the ‘one family, one child’ policy in 2016. And, as it turned out, this alone has not been enough to automatically spur a surge in the birth rate, given the country’s current socio-economic conditions. Only one-tenth of large city families have had a second baby since the reform passed.
Children Are Expensive!
Andrey Karneev, head of the Higher School of Economics’ School of Oriental Studies, says that Chinese social scientists are debating whether the decline in the birth rate is due to the ‘one child’ policy or modern lifestyles.
“Most likely, the main factor is urbanization, just as it has been in the developed countries of Europe, as well as America, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. There is nothing new about this, it’s all part of the same trend,”He said.
The urbanization of China’s population has already reached 60%, and this figure continues to grow. Life in megacities dictates its own rules and instills other values in new generations – people marry late, work a lot, and give birth rarely, preferring entertainment and travel to child-rearing. It is due to the desire for personal fulfillment and to be able to enjoy life for yourself, not for the benefit of others. In sociology, this is known as ‘demographic transition.’ Lomanov is confident that the negative trend in China’s birth rate will not be easily broken.
“Chinese society is getting rich too fast. Already, the middle classes dominate it. The maximum that can probably be achieved is to maintain reproduction rates, and that only with great difficulty,”He believes.
Additionally, Chinese potential parents feel the obligation to their offspring a healthy start in life.
As Ivan Zuenko, a researcher at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Institute of International Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, put it in an article for Profile magazine, many young Chinese couples “don’t think they can afford it.”
“When thinking about a child, the Chinese immediately begin to estimate how much its education will cost them. These aren’t happy thoughts. Given how much education is valued in Asian societies, multiplied by the Chinese maximalism in everything, the cost of a good preschool in Beijing or Shanghai can easily reach $2,000-$2,500 per month,”He was observant.
Lomanov confirmed that today’s young Chinese couple are primarily guided by their ability to have a child and not sacrifice their quality of living.
“After all, besides calculating how much they will spend on raising and educating a child, people also need to think about how they will pay off their mortgage. China has a high cost of housing. In an inverted demographic pyramid, a married couple, as a rule, takes care of four other people, or at least the husband’s parents. It is not possible to abandon elderly parents without help, according to Chinese custom. You cannot say: “You’ll need to manage on your own – we have our own worries.” And, of course, most families do try to find a way to help their elderly parents, so the load is exorbitant,” Lomanov explains.
In his opinion, China’s leadership is also partly to blame. “At the beginning of the reforms in the 1980s, people were simply told, “Enrich yourself if you can.” But generations are changing. Now, young people are increasingly saying, “We don’t want to get rich and overexert ourselves. We want to live for our own pleasure, without putting a huge effort into social development.” It is clearly impossible to fight this exclusively with propaganda,”Lomanov.
Partly due to the new behavioral patterns of young people, Xi Jinping has started talking about building a society of ‘universal welfare’ or a society of ‘universal prosperity’ (共同富裕), Lomanov added. The gap between consumption and income should shrink by 2025. By 2035, all citizens should have access to the public services. Incomes should also be equalized in cities and villages.
In 2021, on the eve of International Children’s Day, which is observed on June 1, the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party gave Chinese families permission to have a third child. But the state, represented by the PRC’s deputy director of the State Committee for Health and Planned Parenthood, Yang Jinzhong, acknowledged that the measures taken to stimulate fertility rates will only help in the long term, if at all.
Are robots or Pakistanis the best choice?
However, can the demographic issues of China’s new leader undermine his grandiose policies? Experts interviewed by RT don’t foresee any big problems for China in the next 10-20 years.
A majority of Chinese are still able-bodied and between the ages 15 to 59. People over 60 make up 20%. This is slightly less than the number of children aged 14-14. But, according to a forecast compiled by the PRC’s Ministry of Civil Administration, the elderly will already account for a third of the population by 2030.
This could lead to Chinese workers being scarce. Ivan Zuenko told RT that, despite the fact that the Communist Party has no effective way to increase the birth rate, this problem will not undermine China’s ambitions in the 21st century. This is partly because China is currently undergoing rapid robotization.
Lomanov is also confident that this will play an important role as China’s population ages. “Now, they love to discuss how artificial intelligence and modern technologies can be used to provide high-quality care for the elderly,”The expert said.
In addition to automation, China can theoretically deal with a potential shortage of workers in two other ways – by improving the ‘quality’ of its population and by transferring people from villages to cities.
“There is already less and less cheap labor in China, and soon there will be very little at all. Workers need professional training, retraining and certification to be better paid. So, the course is to move from quantity to quality,”Lomanov stated.
A number of estimates also suggest that rural China could provide additional cities with 100 to 150 millions people. However, to replace these migrants, it will be necessary to introduce automation in villages more actively – machines, combines, large storage and processing facilities, etc.
“Newcomers will need to be taught to deal with city life and adapt. And their children will need to be provided with a high-quality education if they are not to be put at a disadvantage to their urban peers in terms of both education and social adaptation,” Lomanov notes.
Andrey Karneev, head of the Higher School of Economics’ School of Oriental Studies, agrees with this opinion, noting that the most likely route for internal migrants is from the western provinces to the richer eastern ones. There is also the possibility that China may soon face emigrants coming from other nations.
“I think China will follow this path. It’s possible that migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh will also be attracted, but it is unlikely that there will be many. China does not seem ready to be a serious destination for foreigners, like the European Union. Moreover, there were recently several episodes in China when local populations demonstrated nervous behavior due to covid, and the Western press wrote a lot about this xenophobia,”He pointed out.
China uses modern technologies and active coercion whenever it has to deal with social problems. So, the PRC will surely find a way to circumvent the country’s fertility problem. The time will reveal the exact method.