China’s birthrate has plummeted to its lowest level since 1978 as the government struggles to stave off a looming demographic crisis.
Data released by the country’s national bureau of statistics shows there were 8.5 births per 1,000 people in 2020, the first time in decades that the figure has fallen below 10. The statistical yearbook, released at the weekend, said the natural rate of population growth – taking in births and deaths – was at a new low of 1.45.
The government is under pressure to prevent a potential population decline after decades of interventionist policies on childbirth and more recent pressures including high living costs.
It did not give reasons for the dramatic drop, but demographers have previously pointed to the relatively low number of women of child-bearing age and the rising cost of raising a family.
The yearbook reported a drop in per capita spending on educational, cultural and recreational costs, and health and medical services for rural and urban Chinese, and an increase in household income. Housing costs also rose.
China’s population woes are largely driven by a one-child policy that was implemented in 1980 and ran – with some exemptions – until 2015, but they are part of a broader pattern around the world, particularly in east Asia.
Governments and local authorities have introduced a swathe of policies seeking to reverse the trend, from relaxing limits on having children, to easing costs associated with education and child rearing, and introducing mandatory “cooling off” periods for divorces.
China’s yearbook revealed a fall in divorces for the first time since at least 1985, to about 4.3m, though there were also fewer marriages, 8.14m, compared with 9.27m the year before.
But it appears the government’s policies have so far failed to adequately address young people’s concerns about the costs associated with having children.
“What the Chinese government is doing has already been done by the Japanese government, and the former is not as rich as the latter,” said Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Japan can provide free healthcare and education, but China can’t.”
Yi, the author of Big Country With an Empty Nest, said there were many social and societal influences on China’s low birthrate, and interventionist policies on reproduction had also shaped public sentiment.
“Most people just want one child, as was promoted by the government, and they have become used to having just one child. They don’t want a second or third despite the policy changes,” Yi said.
“For the foreseeable future the Chinese government can’t do much, because Japan has done everything it can and must consider its society and economics to make fundamental changes. The difficulty of this is even higher than the reform and opening up in 1979. I don’t know if the Chinese government has such boldness.”
Yao Meixiong, a demographics expert and adjunct professor at Huaqiao University’s school of economics and finance, told the local outlet Jiemian that the low levels of desire to have children was a wake-up call for China’s development.
“The response to the population crisis is in a race against time, and measures to encourage childbirth must be expedited,” Yao said.
Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu