China in 2018 saw its fewest births in more than half a century

The future is counting on you.
The future is counting on you.
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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China announced on Monday that it recorded 15.23 million births in 2018, a sharp drop of two million compared with the previous year, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (link in Chinese).

That’s the lowest number of births China has recorded since 1961, demographic scholar He Yafu told Bloomberg (paywall), when the famine that resulted from leader Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward economic campaign led to millions of deaths and aborted or miscarried births. According to Chinese data service Wind Info, China’s births in 1961 were fewer than 12 million, CNBC reported.

The 2018 birth number, the result of the strict one-child policy that was put in place 40 years ago, is all the more striking because China’s overall population is far larger now at 1.4 billion that its population of roughly 660 million in 1961. If the birth trends remain where they are, China’s total population could start shrinking in just eight years, a prominent state-run think tank in Beijing warned earlier this month.

Concern over the falling birth rate—which economists believe will further hamper China’s already slowing economy as the population ages and working-age population contracts—led China to relax the policy in 2015 to allow people to have two children. It’s widely expected to announce the end of all restrictions on family sizes as soon as this year—or at least so a new postage stamp showing a pig family with three piglets suggests.

In the first year of the relaxation the policy seemed to work—China had some 18.46 million live births in 2016, and nearly half of the babies born that year had at least one older sibling. But just a year later the upward trend reversed, with 2017 recording 17.23 million births, followed by last year’s steeper fall.

A number of reasons have contributed to China’s diminishing number of births. China’s one-child policy has resulted in a declining population of women at reproductive age. That has combined with a cultural preference for sons expressed during the last four decades that has left the country with an estimated 30 million more men than women, many of whom might never marry or start a family.

Added to that, women who are more educated than earlier generations still find they face traditional family expectations of playing the main role in raising children. That’s leading them to put off plans to have a child, or only have one because caregiving duties could put an end to their career advancement.