Instead of a desperately needed baby boom, China gets a COVID-19 baby bust

Domestic News

Although some researchers stressed that the data to fully gauge the number of lowered birth rates won’t be available for a few months, many population experts are convinced that the pandemic had led to a sizable reduction in children born in 2020.

baby

When the COVID-19 outbreak first hit China in early 2020, many speculated — and some government officials and demographers hoped — that the widespread lockdowns, which confined millions of Chinese people to their homes, would yield a boom of quarantine babies. 

More than a year later, it appears that no such boom has occurred. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: According to statistics released on February 8 by the Ministry of Public Security, there were about 10.03 million newborns registered in China last year, 15% less than in 2019. 

Meanwhile, preliminary data shows that birth rates declined between 9% to 32.6% in the second half of 2020 compared with 2019 in some Chinese cities, including Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province, and Hefei in Anhui Province. 

As Sixth Tone noted, the actual situation is likely less bleak than what these figures portray, because they don’t include children born in violation of China’s family planning policies, which have been relaxed but not abolished in recent years. 

Although some researchers stressed that the data to fully gauge the number of lowered birth rates won’t be available for a few months, many population experts are convinced that the pandemic had led to a sizable reduction in children born in 2020. 

“Judging from the numbers that have been released so far, it’s quite obvious that China’s fertility rate has continued to drop. The downward trend is still in force,” said Lù Jiéhuá 陆杰华, a sociology professor at Peking University, in an interview with the 21st Century Business Herald. He warned that in the long term, declining birth rates could leave China without enough workers, making the country unable to fund welfare programs for senior citizens.

Lu’s worries are shared by many high-level government officials and policymakers in China. The country’s birth rates have been steadily falling for years now, mostly because young people can’t afford to have kids, and more financially independent women have decided to embrace a single, childless lifestyle. 

The combination of low fertility rates and an aging population has driven the government to roll out a wide range of policies to encourage births, including relaxing its decades-long one-child policy and offering extended benefits to couples having a second child. 

But the initiative has yet to deliver any significant results. In an article published in December last year, Civil Affairs Minister Lǐ Jìhéng 李纪恒 urged the government to introduce more effective measures to boost the country’s “dangerously low” birth rate. Earlier this year, Hè Dān 贺丹, the director of the China Population Development and Research Center, a state-affiliated institute under the National Health Commission, warned (in Chinese) that China was on the verge of entering an era of negative population growth, forecasting that the country would experience more deaths than births at some point in the next 10 years. 

To make things worse, some of the past efforts to reverse the declining national fertility levels  have backfired miserably. For example, in 2018, the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, faced an intense backlash after publishing a controversial commentary that suggested “giving birth is not only a family matter but also a national issue.” 

When stay-at-home orders first began to go into effect across China, many suggested that the pandemic might lead to a desperately needed baby boom as people in quarantine might plan on starting families out of pure boredom. Now that the data indicates otherwise, some Chinese media outlets are trying to get to the bottom of what’s preventing people from having children.

In an online poll (in Chinese) involving nearly 57,000 Weibo users, Sina Finance found that more than 75% of the respondents cited “high living costs” as the primary reason for their decisions to not have babies. Worries about the so-called “motherhood penalty” (生育惩罚 shēngyùchéngfá) — the negative stereotypes about the value of mothers as workers — and mounting pressure at work are also frequently mentioned as main factors contributing to their decision to delay marriage and having children.