ON THE MARGIN: China struggling to make more babies

NEW DELHIWritten By: Shastri RamachandaranUpdated: Jun 16, 2021, 11:36 AM IST
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FILE PHOTO: Children play at a waterfront in Shekou area of Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China March 15, 2021. Photograph:(Reuters)

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The looming population crisis, unless tackled swiftly and effectively, could trigger an economic crisis fraught with the risk of social unrest and consequent political problems at a time when China’s rise is sought to be thwarted by the US-led West and Indo-Pacific nations.

China is so much in the news for the wrong reasons, such as its military stand-off with India or glossing over the origin of coronavirus, that the ruling Communist Party’s announcement on May 31 allowing couples to have three children has not drawn the attention it deserves for its implications. 

Politburo’s decision shows that although China’s economy is doing better than any other major economy in the Covid-ravaged world, the country is caught in a demographic crisis that could begin eroding its economic strength.

The looming population crisis, unless tackled swiftly and effectively, could trigger an economic crisis fraught with the risk of social unrest and consequent political problems at a time when China’s rise is sought to be thwarted by the US-led West and Indo-Pacific nations.

On January 1, 2016, when China ended its one-child policy, which had been enforced with a heavy hand for over 35 years, and switched to an “active two-child policy”, the question was: Will it deliver? More than five years since then, the Communist Party of China (CPC) finds that the decision has not yielded the desired demographic and economic results; and, the political need for an effective population policy is even greater today. 

The compelling circumstances for adopting the two-child policy then was that, after more than three decades of turbo-charged growth, China’s growth rate had begun to fall. The slow-down came amidst worries that an ageing population would weigh heavily on the economy with the dwindling labour pool shrinking further. The declining population of those in the working-age of 16-59 years meant decreased consumption and lower spending, which would hurt an economy looking to boost growth. The aged not only do not contribute to the labour force but are a drag on the productivity of those in the working-age group; and, especially so when young couples have to look after two sets of ageing parents in the absence of adequate social, structural or financial support from the state.

Thus, there is every chance of the world’s most populous nation getting old before it manages to “get rich”, as exhorted by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s when he unleashed reforms that led to China’s extraordinary rise as an economic power.

While the reforms dictated by market economics have been a huge success, the population policy —also dictated by market economics—gave rise to political and bureaucratic excesses such as forced abortions and sterilisations; denial of residence permits and jobs; exclusion of “illegal” children; and, parents being subject to oppressive penalties. The parents often found themselves out of jobs, and the “illegal” children left without a hukou (citizen’s ID essential for residence, education and employment). 

The conditions in 2016 which made China act to increase its birthrate remain much the same in 2021. Births in China have fallen every year from 2016 to 2020, and are at the lowest now after the era of Mao Zedong. The total fertility rate is at an all-time low of 1.3, and the population of the aged is growing at a pace faster than at any time in the last 40 years. The number of those above 60 years is nearly 270 million; and, this is projected to exceed 300 million in five years. Official figures show that the proportion of the working-age group peaked in 2010 (at 74.5 per cent) and has been declining since 2011.

There is no way that the three-child policy can alter any of these trends in the short-term any more than the two-child policy did in the last 65 months. Current evidence suggests that the prevalent demographic trend is likely to continue given the lower fertility rate; and because only a small percentage of those able and “eligible” want to go in for more than one child.

In 2013, when the one-child policy was relaxed to permit couples who were the only offspring to have two children, an estimated 11 million couples were eligible to add one more to the family. But less than 10 per cent (1.1 million)—not 2 million as expected officially—had applied to have a second child. When the two-child policy came, 90 million couples were reckoned eligible for a second child. But not even an expected ten per cent of the eligible exercised this option, as borne out by the even steeper fall in the birthrate between 2016 and 2020.

Rapid urbanisation, more than state policy, has reinforced the one-child norm. Urban living is expensive, stressful and too constricting to support large families. There are many deterrents to child-bearing. Rising costs of housing, nursing and education, lack of adequate social, familial and state support for child-bearing alongside late marriages and more women joining the workforce, are only a few of the reasons for most couples opting for one or no child. 

Under these circumstances, if one-child families are the norm, no-child families are increasingly becoming the fashion. While ‘bed behaviour’ may no longer invite punitive action for “illegal” reproductive outcomes, the state still has a population control policy. For this policy to attain its objectives, China should adopt a more persuasive approach backed by supportive measures and incentives, as is the practice in family-friendly European nations. Unless that happens, and soon, it would be hard to reverse the trend, fuel population growth and sustainable economic growth.

(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV.)

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)