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China’s “demographic time bomb”: too little, too late?

Rosie Loyd

Thursday, 3 March 2022

On a recent episode of the podcast Chinese Whispers, demographer Wang Feng, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine, compared China’s population changes to the ‘on-off’ nature of a water tap. Now, 40 years on from the implementation of the one-child policy, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) urgently need it to turn back on…but it seems that there’s a lack of water. Using recent statistics, our Current Affairs Editor, Rosie, investigates the causes and consequences of this increasing, and potentially damaging, social phenomenon.

First, there was the one-child policy, introduced in 1980 to curb China’s rising population and limit births to one per household. Rural areas, however, were permitted a second child if the first was male.


Then, in 2015, came the two-child policy, where married couples were encouraged to have another child. China’s population growth rate had slowed, perhaps more so than had originally been intended. By this point, however, 35 years after the first policy, one child was now the norm, reflected by statistics showing a continual decline of pregnancies.


And now we are living in the world of China’s three-child policy. Initiated in 2021, this followed data from The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), which stated that there were 12 million births during 2020, a decrease from 15 million in 2019. And released earlier this week, new statistics confirming that fewer babies are being born: only 10.62 million in 2021.


Whilst China’s population is yet to peak, last year’s growth rate of 0.034% was the slowest ever recorded. This being the case despite the rate always maintaining itself above 0.1% since 1952. This year, it is highly likely that we might see the turning point.


So, why is the birth rate declining? The cost of raising a child in China is at an all-time high. According to Reuters, in 2019, the average cost to bring up a child to the age of 18 was 486,000 yuan (about £56,000), more than 6.9 times the GDP per capita of 72,000 yuan (about £8,380). With increasing pressures to provide necessary educational tools in preparation for their child’s future (such as after-school classes, private tutoring, and extra-curricular activities), these “tiger parents”, as they have been coined, invest time and money into their protégés.


Expensive and cramped housing, together with employers’ preferences for men instead of women, who are liable to get pregnant, are also deterrents from having children in China today.


One child has, for decades now, been the standard. Chinese millennials beginning to think about having a child have grown up without siblings. They don’t find it necessary to have more than one child. In fact, they don’t know any different.


The principal impacts of this declining birth rate relate to China’s economy. Put simply, if there are too many old people, young children, and babies and not enough young adults to make up China’s labour force, then the world’s second largest economy might just begin to crumble. China relies on its workforce more than any other country; it has been the world’s largest exporter since 2009, supplying dependent countries with technology, clothes, electronics, and, in most recent years, vital medical equipment.


So how is China targeting this issue? Aside from allowing couples to have more children, bans have been implemented on private ‘for-profit’ after-school tutoring. Maternity leave has also been expanded, and in some areas, local governments have been offering cash subsidies for those who have children.


Most notable, however, is Beijing’s newly offered fertility services. From 26th March, Beijing will include 16 medical services in the city’s state insurance to assist more women in getting pregnant. The government will fund the procedures needed for IVF and, so far, no limit has been stated as to how many rounds couples can have.


Whilst the CCP is seemingly attempting to reduce the rate at which the population growth rate falls by increasing birth rates, it raises the question of whether this is too little, too late. What is certain, however, is that next year’s data from NBS will be sure to depict what direction China’s population is heading in, and with that, the future economic and political impacts.



You can listen to the 'Baby Bust' episode of the podcast Chinese Whispers below:



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Barbara Dawson

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Lovely tasty dish. Try it you won’t be disappointed.

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Aunty Liz

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Very tasty and cheap. I often have this for tea!

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BETTS

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Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?

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Niamh

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Such an interesting article!

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