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FEATURE- As world population hits 8 billion, China frets over too few babies

Chinese software developer Tang Huajun loves playing with his two-year-old in their apartment on the outskirts of Beijing but he said he is unlikely to have another child.

November 14, 2022
14 November 2022

BEIJING/HONG KONG, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Chinese software
developer Tang Huajun loves playing with his two-year-old in
their apartment on the outskirts of Beijing but he said he is
unlikely to have another child.

Such decisions by countless people like Tang will determine
the course not only of China’s population but that of the world,
which the United Nations says is projected to reach 8 billion on
Tuesday.

Tang, 39, said many of his married friends have only one
child and, like him, they are not planning any more. Younger
people aren’t even interested in getting married let alone
having babies, he said.

The high cost of childcare is a major deterrent to having
children in China, with many families in an increasingly mobile
society unable to rely for help on grandparents who might live
far away.

“Another reason is that many of us get married very late and
its hard to get pregnant,” Tang said. “I think getting married
late will definitely have an impact on births.”

China was for decades preoccupied with the prospect of
runaway population growth and imposed a strict one-child policy
from 1980 to 2015 to keep numbers in check.

But now the United Nations expects China’s population will
start shrinking from next year, when India will likely become
the world’s most populous country.

China’s fertility rate of 1.16 in 2021 was below the 2.1
OECD standard for a stable population and among the lowest in
the world.

The anguish of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s strict
measures to stamp it out may also have had a profound impact on
the desire of many people to have children, demographers say.

New births in China are set to fall to record lows this
year, demographers say, dropping below 10 million from last
year’s 10.6 million – which was already 11.5% lower than in
2020.

Beijing last year began allowing couples to have up to three
children and the government has said it is working towards
achieving an “appropriate” birth rate.

OLD PEOPLE, NEW PROBLEMS

For planners, a shrinking population poses a whole new set
of problems.

“We expect the aging population to increase very rapidly.
This is a very important situation facing China, different to 20
years ago,” said Shen Jianfa, a professor at the Chinese
University of Hong Kong.

The proportion of the population over the age of 65 is now
about 13% but is set to rise sharply. A declining labour force
faces an increasing burden of looking after the rising numbers
of old folk.

“It will be very high for some years,” Shen said of the
proportion of elderly in the population. “That’s why the country
has to prepare for the coming aging.”

Alarmed by the prospect of an ageing society, China has been
trying to encourage couples to have more children with tax
breaks and cash handouts, as well as more generous maternity
leave, medical insurance and housing subsidies.

But demographers say the measures are not enough. They cite
high education costs, low wages and notoriously long working
hours, along with frustration over COVID curbs and the overall
state of the economy.

A key factor is job prospects for young people, said Stuart
Gietel Basten, professor at Hong Kong’s University of Science
and Technology.

“Why would you have more babies when the people you have
cannot even get jobs?”
(Reporting by Thomas Suen and Farah Master; Editing by Robert
Birsel)

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