Birth rates in China fall to record low in 2021

There were 7.52 births for every 1,000 people last year, down from the 8.52 in 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - The birth rate in China fell to a record low last year (2021), extending a downward trend despite a landmark decision to allow couples to have up to three children and measures to help with raising them.

There were 7.52 births for every 1,000 people last year, down from the 8.52 in 2020.

Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics on Monday (Jan 17) also showed that 10.62 million babies were born in the world's most populous country last year - an 11.5 per cent drop from the 12 million in 2020.

In 2019, the birth rate was 10.41 and there were 14.65 million births.

Changing attitudes towards raising children, a fall in the number of women at optimal child-bearing age and the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to China's dwindling birth rate, said bureau head Ning Jizhe, who is also the vice-chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission.

He added that a policy shift announced in May last year to allow married couples to have up to three children should increase or at least sustain the current number of newborns.

The government expects the overall population to hover around 1.4 billion in the years to come, he said.

China has been trying to raise its flagging fertility rate to stave off a growing reliance on the government to support its old, but it has achieved little success so far.

As at November 2020, five adults are supporting one elderly person in China, according to a report by the National Health Commission and the Office of the National Working Commission on Aging in October last year.

The report did not predict how the dependency ratio is expected to change, but stated that the elderly population is forecast to grow by 53 million in the five years to 2025.

In 2013, Beijing announced that it will allow married couples to have up to two children - if either parent is an only child - effectively putting an end to the controversial one-child policy that had been in place since 1980.

Still, the Chinese have not responded to the call to have more children, with the total fertility rate standing at 1.3 in 2020, far below the replacement rate of 2.1, according to a once-in-a-decade census in May last year.

The stresses and high costs of raising children have been commonly cited by parents in China as reasons not to have more children.

When the three-child policy was announced last May, top policymakers promised a suite of changes in areas such as housing, education and childcare.

Beijing followed up in July by banning the after-school tutoring industry, a bugbear among parents who have complained about the exorbitant fees they are paying to help their child get ahead in school.

More than 20 provincial governments have since rolled out goodies such as extending maternity leave, creating childcare leave and issuing subsidies to spur the number of births, according to a Xinhua report in November last year.

An overhaul of women's protection laws is also under way to ban employers from asking women about their pregnancy and childcare plans.

The challenge of encouraging parents to have more children has given birth to extreme suggestions in public debates.

One of them, raised by celebrity economist Ren Zeping in an article on Monday, is for the central bank to print an extra two trillion yuan (S$425 billion) to encourage the birth of 50 million more children in 10 years.

Dr Ren, who was the former chief economist at disgraced property giant Evergrande, defended his opinion on microblogging account Weibo after the article went viral, with other analysts weighing in to say that his suggestion was impractical, and that such a large stimulus would create problems for the economy.

Dr Ren's microblogging account was later banned for "violating relevant laws and regulations", according to a notice on Weibo.

In December, netizens slammed a commentary in a state-owned news outlet which suggested that Communist Party of China members have a personal obligation to have three children to save the country's plunging fertility rate.

Netizens ridiculed the commentary for its old-fashioned views, and the article has been scrubbed off the Internet.

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