Concerned by China’s shrinking population, political advisers to the government have come up with more than 20 recommendations to boost the nation’s birthrate, although experts say the best they can do is to slow the population’s decline.
China dug itself into a demographic hole largely through its one-child policy imposed between 1980 and 2015. Authorities raised the limit to three in 2021, but even when people were stuck at home during COVID-19 couples have been reluctant to have babies.
Young people cite high childcare and education costs, low incomes, a feeble social safety net and gender inequalities as discouraging factors.
The proposals to boost the birthrate, made at the annual meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) this month, range from subsidies for families raising their first child, rather than just the second and third, to expanding free public education and improving access to fertility treatments.
Experts took the sheer number of proposals as a positive sign that China was treating its aging and declining demographics with urgency, after data showed the population shrinking for the first time in six decades last year.
“You cannot change the declining trend, but without any fertility encouragement policy then fertility will decline even further,” said Peng Xiujian (彭秀健), senior research fellow at the Centre of Policy Studies at Victoria University in Australia.
A motion by CPPCC member Jiang Shengnan (蔣勝男) that young people work only eight hours per day so that they have time to “fall in love, get married and have children,” is critical to ensure women are not overworked, Peng said.
Giving incentives to have a first child could encourage couples to have at least one child, she said. Many provinces only subsidize second and third children.
China’s birthrate last year fell to 6.77 births per 1,000 people, from 7.52 births in 2021, the lowest on record.
Experts also praised a proposal to scrap all family planning measures, including the three children limit and the requirement for women to be legally married to register their children.
Financial incentives are not enough and policies focusing on gender equality and better employment rights for women would likely have more of an effect, London School of Economics and Political Science associate professor Arjan Gjonca said.
CPPCC proposals such as maternity leave paid by the government rather than the employer would help reduce discrimination against women, while increasing paternity leave would remove a barrier so that fathers could take on more parenting responsibilities, experts said.
Demographer Yi Fuxian (易富賢) was skeptical about the measures, saying that China needs a “paradigm revolution of its entire economy, society, politics and diplomacy to boost fertility.”
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