China’s government openly admits there is a population crisis

Tired of hearing about China? Join the club. However, in today’s world what happens in China has global implications. The People’s Republic is the world’s elephant in the room. For demographers, it is the canary in the coal mine. The country is headed into a demographic winter. The West and all the rest should take heed.

Just last week the Qiushi Journal, flagship magazine of the Communist Party Central Committee, published a National Health Commission report, “Writing a new chapter of population work for a new age.” This is a huge deal. The government is now saying, publicly and unequivocally, that low fertility is “the most important risk factor” facing China. No doubt about that.  

Projections vary, but The Lancet (2020) has China’s population shrinking 45% by century’s end. The decline has already begun. Last year China’s powers-that-be stonewalled releasing census data revealing a shrinking China on the horizon. Now the bosses in Beijing are forthcoming about the looming population crisis. That’s a major change.

The Qiushi Journal article says China’s population will decrease during the 14th Five-Year plan (2021-25) and defined four major population challenges: (1) falling birth rates (in some regions down 40%); (2) rising reluctance to have children; (3) an aging population (30% will be over 60 by 2035); and (4) shrinking family size.

The essay put the best possible face on grim tidings by stating the obvious, that China will experience “profound and complex changes.” No kidding.

Last year the ruling Communist Party deemed it permissible to have three children, but there have been few takers. China is (still) in the third decade of an economic boom. Upwardly mobile young people voraciously pursue opportunities that were not available to their parents. But they are being squeezed. A zero-sum dog-eat-dog workaholic lifestyle coupled with high costs of housing, childcare and much else has taken a toll. The government knows this but has yet to do anything substantive about it.

One reason could be that staving off population implosion is something new. There is no precedent, no formula to fix it. Thus far only a patchwork of provincial programs to encourage childbearing – in just 13 of 23 provinces – has had little if any success.

However, one measure specific to China should be instituted forthwith: The ruling Communist Party moralizes about the need for more Chinese children. Why not set a bold example, practice what they preach and mandate that young Party members have more children? Several months ago the idea surfaced online but quickly disappeared.

Here are some stratagems that any country could take to promote family life:

  • Subsidies for pre-natal care and childbirth so it doesn’t break the bank to have a baby.
  • Generous baby bonuses.
  • Extended maternity and paternity leave.
  • Workplace reforms ensuring that children are not a bar to professional advancement.
  • Onsite day care integral to the workplace so you can take the tots to work.
  • Favorable mortgage rates for couples with children.
  • Family counseling and fertility treatment.

All this is going on right now in Hungary with early signs of success. Hungary’s pro-family President Viktor Orbán unapologetically advocates “Hungary for Hungarians.”

In China, the People’s Republic is flush with cash. Billions are invested in domestic infrastructure, defense and the global trade Belt and Road Initiative. While this extends the reach of Eurasia’s economic powerhouse, it doesn’t help Chinese families. The national budget should be reconfigured to implement the incentives listed above. The money is there.

However, the above-mentioned pro-natalist measures focus solely on the financial. The reasons for falling fertility are plainly more profound than money. A change in thinking is critically essential – a sea change, as in a rejuvenated national zeitgeist or spiritual rebirth.

In today’s world, rising standards of living foster a secularized, consumerist/materialist mentality indifferent to the future beyond individual enrichment. There is a devastating insouciance regarding future generations, the family line, the joys of parenting and sustaining the nation.

Hungary’s President Orbán understands this and unabashedly champions Christian values. He can remember when his country was under the yoke of Soviet Communism and Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also promotes a pro-natalist ethos, providing generous state support to a revived Russian Orthodox Church.

Professors Fu-Xian Yi and W. Bradford Wilcox have suggested something similar for China.

A more promising possibility for China is religion – understood as a set of values that endow ordinary life with transcendent value. Religion is strongly linked to fertility in countries across the globe. By placing a high value on family life and according status to men and women who sacrifice their own desires for the needs of family members, faith tends to foster higher birth rates.

In the Chinese context, a revival of Confucianism is probably more likely than the rise of Christianity, which has almost 100 million adherents in the Middle Kingdom. Confucianism has been to the East what Christianity has been to the West, nourishing populations and civilisations for more than two thousand years.

Many in Beijing understand. The Qiushi Journal article urges a wholly reformed social culture for China centered on family, marriage, and parenting, with “Chinese stories of beautiful love, harmonious family, and happy life in a new era.” Sounds like a blueprint for spiritual rebirth.

Possible? Most certainly. Under present conditions it is a long shot. But crisis cultivates creativity, forging virtue out of necessity. As history teaches us, the world can turn on a dime.

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