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China's Most Wanted: Babies

FILE - A child is wrapped up against the cold at a park in Beijing, China, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015.
FILE - A child is wrapped up against the cold at a park in Beijing, China, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015.

Access to low-interest housing loans and low-income housing. Remote work. Flextime. Childcare for 2-year-olds, not just kids 3 and up.

Despite these inducements designed to encourage potential parents to procreate, official statistics from Beijing indicate China's birth rate continues to fall even though couples have been encouraged to have three children since 2021.

The shift has the government pivoting to embrace a "talent dividend" — fewer young people but educated to have skills to benefit China, rather than the old "demographic dividend" — a seemingly never-ending supply of young workers.

Niu Jianlin, a researcher at the Institute for Population and Labor Economics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, last week told the government-affiliated China Discipline Inspection and Supervision News, "According to the report of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, education, science and technology and talents are the basic and strategic support for building a modern socialist country in an all-round way. … This points out the direction for us to further improve the quality of the population and realize the transition from 'demographic dividend' to 'talent dividend.'"

According to information released this month from the "China Statistical Yearbook 2022" published by the National Bureau of Statistics of China, 13 of the nation's 31 provinces and cities that are the administrative equivalent of provinces experienced negative natural population growth in 2021. In 2020, there were 11 such negative growth centers.

The total number of births in China in 2021 was 10.62 million, a record low in recent years, according to bureau statistics released in January. The net increase of 480,000 people in a nation of 1.4 billion was the lowest since 1962 when China began keeping these records.

Yang Wenzhuang, head of population and family affairs at the National Health Commission, told the 2022 Annual Conference of China Population Association in July that there will be no population growth by 2025.

Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert and senior researcher at the Center for China and Globalization, told the government-affiliated Global Times, "It can be predicted that China's birth rate will continue to shrink for more than a century."

China is not alone in experiencing a declining birth rate. "The decline in the working-age population is an inevitable consequence of the modern demographic transition. In today's world, except for a few immigrant countries, most of the low-fertility countries that have completed the population transition have generally experienced or will soon experience the process of the working-age population from rising to falling," said Niu, adding that China's total working-age population still ranks first in the world.

Based on an analysis of Chinese state-run financial media organization Yicai, the reasons for the natural negative population growth in different regions vary. For example, in northeast China, urbanization and the outflow of young people seeking opportunities elsewhere contribute to the low birth rate. The natural population growth rate in northern China and some central provinces is low, mainly due to the outflow of young and middle-aged people seeking jobs elsewhere. In addition, some provinces with relatively high urbanization rates, such as Jiangsu, Shanghai, Chongqing and Tianjin, have relatively low natural population growth rates.

Experts believe that the current political climate and economic environment make some Chinese people hesitate to have children.

Fu-Xian Yi, senior scientist of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told VOA Mandarin that many Chinese families are reluctant to have children because of high housing prices and declining income.

Yi said, "China's housing prices are too expensive, which makes it difficult for ordinary people to raise children. The employment rate has fallen, and the unemployment rate has increased. The policies for COVID testing and quarantinization are making it difficult for pregnant women and children. China's economic growth is declining," so people worry about providing for offspring as incomes shrink.

And while Chinese authorities began overturning the one-child policy in 2013, leading to a two-child for everyone policy in 2016, and the three-child policy in 2021, the government failed to introduce policies that would offset the costs of childrearing, according to Yi.

It wasn't until August 2022 that China's National Health Commission announced the "14th Five-Year Plan" (2021-2025) to combat negative population growth. Chinese authorities targeted married women of childbearing age with inducements such as low-cost housing loans or low-income housing, remote and flex-time employment policies and allowing 2-year-olds into preschools that once accepted only children who were a year older.

Seventeen of China's national agencies, including the National Health Commission and National Development and Reform Commission, jointly announced the baby-boosterism policies.

Song Jian, a professor at Renmin University of China and deputy director of the Population and Development Research Center, told the Global Times on November 16 that encouraging couples to have children rested with implementing the measures announced in August to provide "economic support, childcare services, and paid maternity leave, the reasonable sharing of childbearing costs and the construction of a childbearing-friendly social atmosphere, focusing on family needs, and balancing work and family for childbearing couples."

But the expense is not the only reason stopping potential parents from having babies, according to Lu Jun, co-founder of Beijing Yirenping Center, a human rights nongovernmental organization in New York City.

He told VOA Mandarin that potential parents see that "Public power in China is now increasingly out of check." He cited the regression of the rule of law and freedom of speech, growing control over media and the consolidation of political power, as evidenced by the election of Xi Jinping to a third term as China's president.

"It is now clear that the door to political reform has been completely closed," Lu said. "Young people question the future of this country."

Lu said that in fact, it is not that the Chinese do not want children, but many people are unwilling to have children in China. "As they see China's political and economic prospects are bleak, they may speed up the pace of emigration for their children to have a brighter future."

Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.