China’s birth rate falls three years in a row

Photo credit: China’s population 1949–2019, and future trends, from Tsinghua Hengda Research Institute.

The number of babies born in China in 2019 was 4 percent lower than in 2018, despite government campaigns to encourage childbirth. The New York Times reports

About 14.6 million babies were born in China in 2019, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. That was a nearly four percent fall from the previous year, and the lowest official number of births in China since 1961, the last year of a widespread famine in which millions of people starved to death. That year, only 11.8 million babies were born.

Births in China have now fallen for three years in a row. They had risen slightly in 2016, a year after the government ended its one-child policy and allowed couples to have two children, a shift that officials hoped would drive a sustained increase in the number of newborns. But that has not materialized.

Two of the most commonly cited reasons for declining birth rates are the skyrocketing cost of raising children and the increased independence of women. A large part of the strain on young couple’s budgets, though, is a direct result of the previous one-child policy as well as the current policy:

While many countries are struggling with low fertility rates and aging populations, these issues are even more pressing in China, because the country’s underdeveloped social safety net means that most older adults rely heavily on their families to pay for health care, retirement and other expenses. Many young married couples are expected to shoulder the burden of taking care of their parents, in-laws and grandparents, without the support of siblings.

What do the new birth numbers mean?

The news stats set China’s official fertility rate at 1.6 babies per woman, far below the 2.1 level at which the country’s population could be self-sustaining. Estimates from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have indicated that China’s population will start to contract around 2027, and the main state pension fund could run out of money in the mid-2030s. But if the rate of births continues to decrease, and/or if the government figures are inflations of the true numbers, China’s demographic crisis could come crashing much more quickly and severely.

Unfortunately, as these demographic doomsdays approach, the government is not exactly adopting an accommodating approach to women who want to raise children in less traditional ways:

Even as the government is now trying to encourage people to have babies, it is sending mixed signals. It still punishes couples who exceed the birth restrictions. The authorities fine single women who bear children, and bar them from using reproductive technologies like freezing their eggs.

Sixth Tone has a profile of two parents who were punished for having a third child. Xue Ruiquan and his wife, Xie Zhengning, of Yunfu, Guangdong Province, say they both lost their jobs and were fined 153,000 yuan ($22,200) — despite being initially assured by local officials that they were in the clear.

Infanticide of unwanted infant girls is likely still a widespread problem, but it is impossible to determine the scale of this phenomenon with the current unreliable government data, writes Beijing-based corporate lawyer Kai Xue in Caixin. An error in the 2010 census data that obscured the reasons for gender disparities in the population must not be repeated in the 2020 census, Kai emphasizes.

—Lucas Niewenhuis