Sat, July 13

2023 Fertility Reality: Can China’s Low Fertility Rate be Reversed?

The birth population data for 2023 has been released. The total number of births for the year was 9.02 million, which is a decrease of 540,000 compared to 2022 when it was 9.56 million, reaching the lowest level on record. Although this may seem less than ideal, it is considered a significant positive development compared to the projected data. In mid-2023, based on obstetric records, Chinese philanthropist Zage estimated that the birth population for 2023 would fall below 8 million, possibly not exceeding 9 million. However, the total fertility rate remains very low. In 2023, China’s total fertility rate is around 1.0, still below half of the replacement level of 2.1. Globally, China’s fertility rate is among the lowest, lower than the average level of around 1.5 in developed countries and even lower than Japan’s severe rate of 1.3. It is slightly higher than South Korea’s level. So, what level does a birth population of 9.02 million represent? Why is there a deviation in the actual data? Can the low fertility rate be reversed?

A birth population of 9.02 million is considered low, especially in a country as populous as China. The deviation in the actual data could be attributed to various factors such as changing societal norms, economic pressures, delayed marriages, and a preference for smaller families. Additionally, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may have also played a role in influencing birth rates.

Reversing a low fertility rate is a complex and challenging task that requires a multi-faceted approach. Policies that support work-life balance, affordable childcare, parental leave, and financial incentives for families to have more children can help encourage higher birth rates. Addressing underlying socio-economic factors that contribute to low fertility rates, such as high housing costs and limited job opportunities for young people, is also crucial. Ultimately, reversing a low fertility rate requires a combination of supportive policies, societal changes, and economic incentives to create an environment where families feel confident and able to have more children.

Looking back at the demographic changes in our country, before the year 2000, China experienced three population peaks driven by both economic and policy factors. In 1963, there was a peak of over 29 million new births. However, after 2000, the total number of births remained relatively stable at around 16 million per year, continuing until 2016. With the implementation of the two-child policy, the number of births reached a small peak of 17.85 million. However, after this wave of increased births, the population of Sichuan did not continue to grow, showing a downward trend starting in 2018, with a maximum decrease of 2 million people at one point. More specific data shows that the number of newborns in 2023 is only slightly more than half of the peak six years ago. However, some people point out that the newborn data in 2023 provides a glimmer of hope, as it exceeded expectations, suggesting a potential positive trend in the future. Why did this deviation occur? The key lies in the source of the predicted data. Predictive data mainly relies on the prenatal examination and filing data of pregnant women, integrating data from various medical institutions to roughly estimate the number of births in a given year by mid-year. According to the data, the number of newborns in 2023 is estimated to be between 7 to 8 million.

However, the issue lies in the fact that some pregnant women have not undergone prenatal examinations and registration, and this situation has not been accounted for in the statistics. Additionally, for twins or multiple births, hospitals typically only establish one medical record. In earlier years, some experts pointed out that Chinese people still have a strong desire for childbirth, and as long as policies are relaxed, it would not be difficult for the number of newborns to reach 17 million again. However, from the current trend, it is unlikely for the birth rate to reach its peak again, and the recent rise in vegetable prices has made it even more apparent for those without purchasing power. Nowadays, young people have lost their desire for childbirth, whether it’s the clear-minded 20-year-old college student or the 30-year-old unemployed individual. One of their biggest concerns is being pressured into marriage, pressured into having children, and some are even pressured to find a partner to bring home for the Chinese New Year. To avoid this pressure, some people have become part of the “avoiding the New Year” group. In extreme situations, some individuals may resort to drastic measures, such as cutting off relationships or even suicide.

A shocking incident occurred in Guizhou recently, where a 26-year-old woman committed suicide by jumping into a river due to intense pressure to marry. Additionally, a 27-year-old woman with a high level of education and a monthly income of 30,000 RMB chose to jump off a building after being criticized by her parents for a failed blind date. When I searched for the term “pressure to have children” online, the search results reflected a sense of helplessness. According to official statistics, an increasing number of people born in the 1990s and 2000s are reluctant to have children, with the childlessness rate among women reaching 6.1% in 2015 and nearing 10% by 2020. The main reason young people are hesitant to have children is economic, as they perceive the cost of raising a child to be high. However, older generations find it difficult to understand this perspective, as they believe that the benefits of having children outweigh the costs. Many grandparents from the older generation typically had four or five children because back then there was less emphasis on nutrition, prenatal education, extracurricular classes, and tutoring fees. Children would start helping with household chores at a young age, serving as additional labor on the family farm.

Nowadays, many people are often calculating the cost of raising children, even for ordinary families who are not pursuing extravagant parenting or pushing their children to excel academically. It basically costs tens of thousands to millions of dollars. Starting from prenatal check-ups, prenatal education, to kindergarten, extracurricular classes, tutoring, and eventually investing in a home in a good school district, the financial responsibilities continue until the child completes their education. Just when you think you can finally breathe a sigh of relief, the burden ahead becomes even heavier. You need to support your children in buying a car, buying a house, which brings serious financial and mental pressure to individuals. The social welfare support for childbirth and child-rearing is minimal, with almost all responsibilities falling on individuals. It’s like there’s a question on a social platform: How to counter the argument that if you don’t have money, don’t have children, and the answers below overwhelmingly support not having children. One of the responses goes like this: “I can work like a horse, but not my descendants.” Therefore, purely from an economic perspective, the cost of childbirth is extremely high, with almost negligible returns. Having children has shifted from creating assets to creating liabilities. Young people are already struggling to support themselves, so naturally, they are reluctant to get married and have children.

With the chain reaction unfolding, factories have become the first to be affected. In September 2023, a hospital in Ningbo announced the closure of its obstetrics department, with doctors being reassigned to gynecology. Prior to this, some obstetrics hospitals in Zhejiang Wenzhou, Jiangxi, Guangxi Laibin, Jiangsu Xingqi, and Guangzhou Panyu had also chosen to suspend services. The reason for the closure of obstetrics departments is simple: a sharp decrease in the number of pregnant women. Previously, there might have been seven or eight, or even more than ten pregnant women in a day, but now it’s rare to see one in a few days, and even having one pregnant woman in a day is considered a good situation.

Kindergartens have also experienced a shift from “hard to find a spot” to “love is hard to find.” In 2022, there were a total of 289,200 kindergartens nationwide, a decrease of more than 5,600 compared to the previous year, marking the first negative growth since 2008. In the past, applying to public kindergartens required cumbersome procedures, possibly even connections, and the whole family had to participate in interviews when the child enrolled. However, kindergartens are now facing enrollment difficulties, with public schools even having zero enrollment in some cases. Some kindergartens are starting promotional activities to attract students, such as actively seeking parents, and offering discounts on tuition if they can bring in a few children from other kindergartens.

In addition to kindergartens, the school district housing market is now experiencing turbulence. One of the top three primary schools in Beijing, Zhongguancun Third Primary School, has seen a decrease of 100,000 RMB per square meter in the peak price of its affiliated residential community, Hummingbird Garden, by the end of 2023. In Shanghai, school district housing in the most prime locations, with prices equivalent to luxury residences like Tomson Riviera, has fallen back to levels seen five years ago. Some parents who purchased school district housing have incurred losses of up to 3 million RMB in just two years. Overall transaction prices for key school district properties in Shenzhen have dropped by 26.7% compared to the peak. This situation is not limited to first-tier cities; school district housing markets in emerging cities like Nanjing, Chengdu, Hefei, Wuhan, Xi’an, and Hangzhou are also experiencing the squeeze of a frenzied bubble. The declining population has become the biggest bearish factor, and it is foreseeable that the imbalance of supply exceeding demand in the childcare-related industry will become increasingly apparent in the future.

Some people believe that reducing the population in the short term can have some benefits for individuals, as it can lead to more abundant education and housing resources, alleviate social pressures, and make parents feel more relaxed. It may even influence the trend of future birth rates. However, from a national perspective, a decrease in the working-age population can result in a decline in innovation and insufficient economic development momentum. In the long term, a declining population can bring about a series of drawbacks. Currently, this contradiction is difficult to reconcile because the pressure to have children persists, and birth rates cannot be easily increased through encouragement alone. If individuals bear the significant costs of childbearing while the benefits mainly contribute to promoting economic development, then reproduction may seem like a sacrifice of personal interests for the benefit of others. Do you think people would be willing to have children under these circumstances?

The next issue to be discussed is low fertility rates. We can draw some insights from the efforts of neighboring countries. For addressing the issue of low fertility rates, Japan and South Korea’s most direct remedy is to provide various subsidies and benefits. They are essentially conveying a message to the younger generation: feel assured to have children, as we will take on the responsibility of raising them. For example, in the city of Fukushima in Hokkaido, Japan, a subsidy of 50,000 yen is provided for the first child, 200,000 yen for the second child, and 1 million yen for the third child. The higher the income, the more the subsidy. South Korea is even more generous, offering a baby subsidy of up to 100 million Korean won, approximately 550,000 Chinese yuan. As for the effectiveness, one can also observe that the declining trend in fertility rates in Japan and South Korea has been quite stable in recent years. However, considering the serious issue of overwork in both countries, the immense pressure on the daily lives of ordinary people in East Asian countries, and the less optimistic expectations for the future, this is understandable. Ultimately, we cannot just immerse ourselves in macro narratives and overlook the specific circumstances of individual lives. When young people consider the issue of fertility, they are not thinking about absolute population numbers, but rather the actual quality of life. If having children hinders personal development and enjoyment of life, or if having children means being unable to provide a good environment for their growth, they may choose not to have children, or even not to marry. I believe the most ideal situation is for everyone to realize that fertility is an important event in life. Whether to have children, and when to have them, should be choices made based on one’s current life situation and beliefs. It should not be about giving up on having children because one cannot afford to raise them, nor should it be about being forced to have children. Only when parents genuinely welcome the arrival of a child, is the birth of a child truly a gift.