The last population census from China, the only one made in 10 years and published at the beginning of the month, shows that births fell to lowest level since 1960s. Given this, there are those who have asked to end the birth control policies. But others they think that that’s not the only thing that isá braking.
Despite being annoyed by her mother about the matter, Lili *, who resides in Beijing, does not plan to have children anytime soon.
The 31-year-old has been married for two years and says she wants to “live her life” without the “constant worries” of raising a child.
“I have very few acquaintances who have children, and if they do, they are obsessed with getting the best babysitter or enrolling them in the best schools. It sounds exhausting.”
Lili spoke to the BBC on condition of anonymity as, according to her, her mother would be devastated to know what she thinks on the matter.
But this difference of opinion between generations reflects that the attitude of many Chinese girls from urban areas towards pregnancy it is changing.
The data speaks for itself.
According to the census, about 12 million babies were born last year, significantly fewer than the 18 million who were born in 2016, the year with the lowest birth rate since the 1960s.
While the overall population grew, the pace of the increase was the slowest in decades, adding to concerns that China may face a population decline earlier than expected.
Population reduction is problematic due to the reversed age structure, with more older than younger people.
When that happens in the future, there will not be enough workers to help the elderly, and there may be a greater demand for medical and social care.
Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, said in a government presentation that a lower fertility rate is the natural result of China’s social and economic development.
As countries become more developed, birth rates tend to fall due to education or other priorities, such as careers.
Neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, for example, have also seen their birth rates drop to record lows in recent years despite various government incentives for couples to have more children.
The serious gender imbalance
But experts say China’s situation could be exceptionally worse given the number of men who find it difficult to find a wife in the first place, so they don’t even think about starting a family.
After all, there is a serious gender imbalance in the country: last year there were 34.9 million more men than women.
This is a consequence of the strict one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to slow population growth.
In a culture that historically favors boys over girls, politics led to forced abortions as there were considerably more newborn boys than girls beginning in the 1980s.
“This poses problems for the marriage market, especially for men with fewer socioeconomic resources,” says Dr. Mu Zheng, from the Department of Sociology at the National University of Singapore.
In 2016, the government ended the policy and allowed couples to have two children.
However, the reform has not been able to reverse the fall in the birth rate despite the increase recorded in the two subsequent years.
“Who would dare to have children in this situation?”
Experts say it is also because the relaxation of the policy did not come with other changes that support family life, such as monetary aid for education or access to childcare.
Many people simply cannot afford to raise children with the rising cost of living, they say.
“People’s reluctance to have children lies not in the process of having children, but in what comes after,” says Dr. Mu.
In addition, he explains, the notion of success has also changed in China, at least for those who live in big cities.
This is no longer defined by traditional markers in life, such as getting married and having children, but has to do with personal growth.
Women are still expected to be the main ones take over the care.
While in China men are theoretically entitled to 14 days of paternity leave, it is rare that they take it, and even more rare that they are full-time fathers.
This perspective makes many women not want to have children, because they feel that it could harm their career prospects, explains Mu.
On Chinese social media this is a hot topic. The hashtag “why this generation of young people is not willing to have babies” has been read more than 440 million times on the Weibo microblogging platform.
“The reality is that there are not many good jobs for women, and women who have good jobs will want to do whatever it takes to keep them. Who would dare to have children in this situation?” Asked one user for example.
While some cities have extended maternity leave in recent years, giving the option of requesting one beyond the standard 98 days, some say this has only contributed to gender discrimination in the workplace.
In March, a businessman forced a job seeker in Chongqing to guarantee that she would quit her job as soon as she became pregnant.
Is it too late to reverse the situation?
Birth restrictions are expected to be completely lifted in the near future. Some sources told Reuters it could happen within the next three to five years.
But there are those who have asked China to eliminate their birth control policies immediately.
“Liberalization of births should happen now, as long as there are citizens who want to have children but cannot,” say researchers from the Central Bank of China in an article posted on their website.
“It is useless to liberalize them when nobody wants to have children. We should not hesitate,” they add.
But other experts point to the need to act carefully, highlighting the huge disparity between city dwellers and the rural population.
As much as women living in cities like Beijing and Shanghai want to delay or avoid pregnancy, those living in the countryside are likely to follow the tradition and want large families, they say.
“If we liberate the policy, people in the countryside might be more willing to give birth than those in the cities, and there could be other problems,” a political source told Reuters, noting that this could lead to poverty and work pressures among rural families.
It seems that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but Dr. Jiang Quanbao, a demography expert at Xi’an Jiaotong University, is optimistic and believes that it is still possible for China to reverse its population problems.
While the fertility rate is declining, it is “still elastic” because the social norm is still to marry and have children, he says.
As long as there are measures to support families in child care and education, for example, there will be hope for change. “It is not too late,” he says.
You could even convince Lili * and make her change her mind.
“If it becomes less competitive to get the resources that children need, I could feel more mentally prepared and less stressed about having a child. My mother would be very happy to hear this,” she said.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.