China is failing to persuade women to have more children. Or any children
China’s population has declined for the second year in a row, despite desperate government incentives to persuade women to have children. In 2023, the number of people fell by 2.08 million to 1.410 billion. The number of births fell by 500,000.
This year, 2024, could see a temporary recovery. A demographer noted in the official newspaper, the Global Times, that this is the Year of the Dragon, a year in which couples traditionally try to conceive a child. But demographers agree that the trend downwards is unstoppable.
In a video comment, Global Times columnist Hu Xijin bravely declared that there was no reason for gloom. “The Chinese nation today will not decline in the process of modernization due to laziness in passing on the family line. There will certainly be many factors that will rise and stop the falling trend of population decline.” However, Western media compared the efforts of the Chinese government to halt decline with those in other countries like Hungary, Sweden and Japan. Nowhere have financial incentives had a substantial effect.
The New York Times pointed out that “History suggests that once a country crosses the threshold of negative population growth, there is little that its government can do to reverse it. And as a country’s population grows more top-heavy, a smaller, younger generation bears the increasing costs of caring for a larger, older one.” China’s problem is particularly acute. Other advanced countries like Australia, Germany, or the United States have offset low birth rates with immigration. But immigration into China is negligible.
Last November President Xi Jinping told the National Women’s Congress that the Communist Party needed to promote a pro-family culture. “We should actively foster a new type of marriage and childbearing culture,” he said. Party officials should educate people about “love and marriage, fertility and family.”
It’s unlikely that anyone broke out into unseemly giggles at the Great Helmsman’s exhortations to be fruitful and multiply. But after decades of aggressively promoting a one-child culture, his words were laughable. Xi’s government dug its own grave long ago. Chinese women no longer aspire to be mothers of large families. In fact, since the abolition of the one-child policy in 2016, the birth rate has actually fallen from about 1.8 children per woman to 1.2, one of the lowest in the world.
China’s economic success, paradoxically, may not have helped. University of Sydney economist Lauren A. Johnston told the NYTimes that the high cost of housing and education is a major obstacle to having more than one child. “People can’t afford to buy space for themselves, let alone for two kids,” she said.
A report from the government’s Development Research Centre attributed the decline to four intractable problems: “delayed marriage age, decreased willingness among young people to have children, reduction in the number of women of childbearing age and higher prevalence of infertility and subfertility.”
Of the four, the most serious are the first two. They show that marriage is no longer a fulfilling life choice for Chinese women. They prefer the comforts of consumerism to the stress of managing three, four, five or more children, as their grandparents once did. In 1963, the fertility rate was 7.5 children per woman.
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Hu Xijin is confident that “There will certainly be many factors that will rise and stop the falling trend of population decline.” To be fair to Mr Xi and to China, that ostrich-like mindset is shared with China by nearly every other developed country in the world. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, Hungary – all countries with serious worries about declining birthrates – believe that something will happen. But tinkering with financial incentives and subsidises IVF is not reversing the trend towards shrinking populations.
Fundamentally, the reason for the decline is the same everywhere – the younger generation has no spiritual horizons. Even the Chinese, who are not religious in a Western sense, used to believe in the duty of filial piety of perpetuating the family line, as Hu Xijin mentioned. But now, it seems, they are thoroughly materialistic in their outlook.
It is becoming clearer and clearer that it is only in communities with deeply-rooted religious convictions that a pro-natalist outlook can take root. Just look at the Amish or Salafist Muslims or ultra-Orthodox Jews, or various communities of Catholic and Protestants.
Of course, gender equality, government support for families, flexible work schedules and so forth will help boost fertility at the margins. But for reasons which remain mysterious, religious convictions give couples an optimistic outlook on life which promotes large families.
So if President Xi is truly determined to elevate “love and marriage, fertility and family” amongst Chinese women, he ought to ditch Marxist dialectical materialism. Will he? Of course not. But he will have to live with the fact that, in the words of one Chinese demographer, “China Is Dying Out”.
Michael Cook is editor of Mercator
Image credits: depositphotos.com
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