China is marching closer to a population crisis

Where are the children?
Where are the children?
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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China is not having enough babies.

Around 10 million newborns were entered into Hukou, the Chinese household-registration system, in 2020—that’s according to China’s Ministry of Public Security, which released the latest figure yesterday (Feb. 8). This represents a 15% decline from the 11.8 million babies registered in 2019.

Although the actual number of newborns each year would usually be bigger than the official registration figure—because some babies aren’t registered in time and hence not counted by the security ministry—many still see the decrease as evidence of China’s failure to handle its fast-approaching population crisis. China’s statistics bureau has delayed the publication of national birth data for 2020 from January to April.

In many major Chinese cities, birth data mirror the national trend. Guangzhou, a prosperous southern city that borders Hong Kong, reported a 9% decline in the number of newborns last year, while another nine cities saw a double-digit decline in new births during the period, according to Chinese media reports.

James Liang, the chairman of China’s largest online booking service provider and a demographic expert, calculated that 2020’s final birth number could be around 12.5 million, which would be a 15% decline from 2019, when around 14.7 million babies were born.

Overall, the number of newborns in China has been on a steady decline since 2016, when Beijing officially ended the one-child policy that started in 1979. Despite a short surge in the number of births in 2016 (17.9 million), the figure has since decreased every year. If Liang’s calculation proves to be accurate, then 2020 would be the year when China saw the lowest number of births in 20 years.

The continued drop in new births is a ticking time bomb for Beijing. Fewer births means less labor force supply, which in turn adds to the pressure on a pension system that relies on contributions from the working population. China had 254 million elderly residents aged 60 or above in 2019, according to the statistics bureau—that’s 18% of the whole population of 1.4 billion.

That number is expected to expand to 300 million by 2025, according to China’s ministry of civil affairs. Some research suggests a bleak conclusion: China’s state pension scheme could run out of funding by 2035 due to the shrinking workforce. That would be a huge issue for the Party, whose top priority is to maintain social stability.

Tired youngsters

The falling birth rate has unleashed a debate on Chinese social media, where people are complaining about the country’s rising housing prices, stalling economy, and increasing education costs as the main reasons for not wanting to have children. “It is not to do with whether the government has policies to encourage people to have babies, it is about whether the current social environment is good enough for them to do so,” a user commented under the news on China’s Twitter-like Weibo.

Indeed, amid the ever-higher pressures to raise a family, many Chinese youngsters have chosen to quit the game. The country’s marriage rate plunged to 6.6 per 1,000 people in 2019, the lowest level in 14 years. Many women have initiated campaigns on social media to encourage youngsters not to get married, as a way to show their discontent against the country’s discriminatory policies against women in the job market and higher education.

Meanwhile, the one-child policy that was in force for over three decades is still hindering the public’s willingness to have children, according to Liang of “The one-child policy consumed a huge amount of resources and funding, worsened the relationship between government employees [that executed the policy] and citizens,” he wrote. “Even though families are now allowed to have a second baby, it is difficult to change people’s notion of seeing one child as the norm…with the rising costs for raising children, the birth rate in China will continue to decline, and it will eventually become the country with the lowest birth rate globally.”