The world’s largest and most comprehensive fertility initiative ever has begun in China

Huge news from the Far East: a mammoth, unprecedented social experiment has just been unleashed.

Seventeen government departments have jointly released a detailed plan for boosting fertility in China. This is the world’s largest and most comprehensive fertility initiative ever.

China’s population is now shrinking. The 2021 census alarmed the upper echelons of the ruling Communist Party. China is in a full-blown fertility crisis, an acute countrywide birth dearth. The workforce shrinks by millions every year. Young couples don’t have enough money to support children. Marriages are down. A creeping sense of anomie that accompanies mammon-worship has been setting in. This is not good for China (or anywhere else). One apparatchik says Chinese births are in a “swan dive.” Not good.

According to a February study conducted by Beijing-based think tank YuWa Population Research Institute, China was behind South Korea in having the lowest birthrates in the world. Researchers at YuWa say that women are concerned about the mounting costs of education, long working hours and low wages.

Since release of the last census, numerous provincial and municipal governments have enacted measures to incentivise family formation. While early yet, there is anecdotal evidence of success in some small towns and rural areas. But so far this scattershot approach has not made a significant difference. China records more deaths than births each year.

So the powers-that-be sensibly decided to implement a national family policy.

China’s Global Times was among the first to break the news: “17 Chinese govt departments issue guideline to boost population growth amid falling birth rate.”

A total of 17 Chinese government departments on Tuesday jointly released a guideline on support policies in finance, tax, housing, employment, education and other fields to create a fertility-friendly society and encourage families to have more children, as the country faces growing pressure from falling birth rates.  

This is an extraordinary feat of bureaucratic cooperation -- to have 17 government ministries jointly issue sweeping guidelines to (1) encourage fertility, and (2) to support childbearing socially, financially and culturally.

The guidelines are extensive. They call for an across-the-board approach supporting marriage and bearing children, mandating that local governments "implement active fertility support measures" including:

  • Subsidising/promoting prenatal and postnatal care.
  • Rebooting the system of nursing care.
  • Increasing maternity leave.
  • Mandating flexible working hours and work-from-home options.
  • Direct financial assistance for education costs.
  • Preferential home purchase schemes for families with multiple children, including larger apartments.
  • Rent assistance from the government’s Mandatory Provident Fund (similar to Social Security) for families with multiple children.
  • Generous tax breaks for families with children under three years of age, in addition to existing tax incentives for school-age children.

Raising fertility is now an urgent national priority. The Global Times summarized:

Tuesday's guideline was released to implement policies to support each couple to have a third child, push the government, institutions and individuals to fulfill their responsibilities in creating a friendly environment for marriage and fertility, and promote population growth, according to the guideline.

“Creating a friendly environment” for families is critical.

This is the most comprehensive package of reforms since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s economy to the world with “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” (state capitalism) in 1978. Deng, aka as “The Great Architect” was also responsible for the draconian one-child policy.

The National Development and Reform Commission’s Hao Fuqing thinks inadequate childcare infrastructure is a major impediment:

In the cities, about a third of the families have the need for childcare, but in reality we don’t have enough supply, and it is indeed a shortage in terms of public childcare facilities.

Also, China has one of the world’s highest abortion rates. There were 17.7 million abortions from 2015 to 2019; that’s 78 percent of unintended pregnancies aborted. Abortion was widespread during China’s draconian one-child policy. Under the new guidelines abortion is strongly discouraged. And when the Chinese government “discourages” something, they don’t fool around.

Ma Li, formerly of the China Population and Development Research Center, said that allowing families to have three children is just the beginning. He says China needs a family-friendly culture. Mr Ma nails it. The government can hector people all day long about having children for the country, party, community, family line and much else. But Mr Ma understands that the culture is vital to reversing China’s birth dearth.

Towards that end he encourages more preschools and kindergartens; making it so that having children is not ruinous to a woman’s career; increasing family allowances, and regionally adjusted family support payments based on the number of children (costs of living vary greatly throughout China).

Chinese scholars are weighing in. Professor Liang Jianzhang of Peking University advocates payment of 1 million yuan ($155,499) for every newborn. Professor Liang says that to raise the country’s fertility rate from (the official) 1.3 to replacement-level 2.1, China should spend 10 percent of GDP. Why not? Ten percent of GDP is a small price to pay for the nation’s survival. Maybe if more countries reordered their priorities this way, government spending would shift from guns and butter to flesh and blood. An idea whose time has come!

China’s population is rapidly ageing. Average family size is 2.62 and falling. It’s high time the national government fully and forcefully fought for the family. They’ve only just begun.

The whole world is watching.


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