National Bureau of Statistics data show that in 2018, new births in China stood at 15.23 million, a 10.9-per-thousand birth rate that was the lowest since 1961.
After the two-child policy was put into place in 2015, there were 17.86 million registered new births in 2016. But in 2017 it fell to 17.23 million, followed by the 2.63-million drop in 2018.
Will the fertility rate dip further? It can't be predicted but the fact that the number of children entering the kindergarten saw a decline in 2018 compared with the previous year implies young couples are not keen to have a second child.
Why have the Chinese, once so eager to have more than one child, grown so reluctant to have a second? What measures are going to encourage young couples to have more children? Here is what people think.
Mo Kaiwei (www.sohu.com): When the two-child policy started in 2015, there were hopes about a surge in new births. But the reality is different. What are the reasons for the declining fertility rate? I think there are three factors.
Young couples' attitude toward childbirth is changing. A lot of them value their career and interests and what they regard as the quality of family life. They feel more than one child will not only bring more economic pressure but also lower the quality of life. They don't want to struggle with mental and material pressures. Also, as the social security system improves, fewer and fewer people see children as the only backstop for elderly parents.
The cost of raising a child has become higher today, due to the costs of education, healthcare and other things. The money spent on babysitters, baby formula and daily requirements, together with kindergarten and higher education tuitions, comes to a huge sum. It's almost impossible to raise a child without spending 800,000 yuan-1 million yuan ($119,128-$148,910) at the current price level. Families think that they shouldn't have a second child, but instead, provide the best for the one they have.
Some couples worry that when their child grows up, it could be harder to find a good job and buy an apartment. There's a joke that the high housing prices in big cities are the most effective contraceptives, as the vast majority of families can't afford to buy one even with their lifetime's savings. The policies to encourage a second child are not fully in place yet. So families have to bear the heavy burden of raising two children themselves.
There need to be more state-owned nurseries or kindergartens and it's still tough to get admission to good primary schools. The compulsory education does not cover senior high school. To make matters worse, college education is becoming increasingly expensive. All these factors deter couples from having more children.
Yuan Xin (www.chinanews.com): Although a decline in new births is clear, we have to make a sensible and objective judgment after analyzing more and detailed data.
Although the labor force is shrinking, we still have a big workforce, and their overall quality is improving. Statistics show that in 2015, 170 million people had received junior college education or above. In the coming years, China will depend more on human capital than human resources. The demographic dividends will benefit the society more in the form of high-quality talents instead of a huge workforce. This will lay a solid foundation for high-quality economic and social development.
Pan Hongqi (www.huanqiu.com): Two factors are responsible for the birthrate dropping last year. The number of women of childbearing age is declining; and most families that wanted to have a second child did so in 2016 and 2017. As a result, the number of new births in 2018 was lower.
We must have a clear understanding of the complexity and severity of this problem. It's now essential to follow the change and its impact on economic and social development. Policies are needed to encourage childbirths and slow down the ageing of the Chinese society, creating a good demographic condition for China's overall development.
Yang Zishi (www.sohu.com): In countries where the fertility rate is low, various incentive policies are adopted, like in the Republic of Korea, Japan and Singapore. These countries have a lot in common with China in terms of culture and probably we can learn from them to boost our childbirths.
Some places have already started to adopt incentive policies to alleviate some of the pressures of having a second child, such as tax credits and education and housing subsidies. However, besides material incentives, it is important to improve social services. In the 1960s and '70s, government departments, various organizations and big enterprises all had nurseries and kindergartens. Employees took their children to the nurseries or kindergartens in their offices when they went to work. This way, they could drop in during breaks to see how the children were faring, while mothers were able to breastfeed their babies. Bringing up a child was far smoother.
But today, in many places, particularly in big cities, parents have to queue up to get their children enrolled with a good nursery or kindergarten, which is usually far away from work. Sending them to school in the morning and bringing them back means a lot of inconvenience for parents, who need to spend a huge amount of time on this. How can you expect young couples to have another child when they are already struggling with one?
To encourage childbirths or to better ensure citizens' education quality, it's necessary for the government to input more education resources, increase the number of state-run kindergartens and while fully using social capital. Government departments, public institutions and enterprises can also run nurseries and kindergartens. What the government should do is to strictly and effectively monitor the operation.
It's important to perfect supportive policies in the future. This problem should be treated with the big picture in mind. While some people don't want to have more children, encouraging those willing to have more will help increase childbirths.
For decades, the adverse effects of overpopulation were emphasized. The concept "a big population is a big burden" has long been implanted in people's mind. It's important to make them realize the serious demographic reality of China.
Families that don't want to have children must realize that childbirth relates to society's future development. They think even if they have no children they can still have a good life thanks to their pension and the well-developed social security system. However, they forget that if society doesn't have enough young labor force in the future, there won't be enough products and services available for them.
Wang Pei'an (news.ifeng.com): On one hand, China's population is approaching 1.4 billion, which is a big burden to underdeveloped areas, limited national resources and the environment. If the population shrinks a bit, individuals can enjoy more per-capita resources. On the other hand, the young population is in decline while the elderly population is rising. China's process of becoming prosperous is accompanied by rapid ageing of the population. Therefore, neither too many nor too few people are good for an economy.
The overall quality and working skills of the labor force have to be improved. Although the work-age population is witnessing a drop, the workforce is still large with 990 million people aged between 15 and 40. The number will stand at 820 million by 2050. In the developed Western world, the work-age population is about 730 million, showing a lower labor force participation rate. Technological progress and the use of artificial intelligence mean that robots will play an increasingly bigger role in future work. So even in 30 or 50 years' time, China will still have a plentiful workforce. Actually, China faces the paradox of an excessive population but shortage of skilled workforce.
With the low birth rate, China can no longer depend on low-cost labor, but needs a high-quality labor force equipped with advanced skills and techniques to sustain its economic development. When it is no longer so populous, it can depend on higher-quality human resources.
Many people are reluctant to have a second child because they can't afford the cost of raising two children. Often there is no one to take care of the babies when the parents have to leave home to earn money. This is not a minor issue.
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar