Xi Jinping Vows to Address Population Conundrum
China’s population growth rate has now fallen to its lowest level in six decades
Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Communist Party Congress on Sunday, that his government "will establish a policy system to boost birth rates and pursue a proactive national strategy in response to population aging." Though the reference was brief amidst a plethora of issues facing China, it reflected policymakers' worry that a steady decline in China's population and a fast aging population could hurt its economy, which has been trying to oust the United States from the top slot.
China's population growth rate has now fallen to its lowest level in six decades. The social and economic conditions in present-day China are such that the decline in birth and fertility rates is not likely to be arrested in the foreseeable future. Therefore, corrective steps will have to be multi-pronged embracing social, cultural, economic, political and administrative measures.
According to Reuters, China's population growth fell to a record low in 2022, dropping below 10 million from last year's 10.6 million babies. This is already down 11.5% from 2020. The country's birth rate (number of live births per thousand of population, per year) had fallen for five years in a row.
China's fertility rate (the total number of births in a year per 1,000 women of reproductive age in a population) was 1.16 in 2021, below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population. China's fertility rate is among the lowest in the world.
In 2021, 10.62 million babies were born in China, a rate of 7.52 per thousand people. In the same period, 10.14 million deaths were recorded, a mortality rate of 7.18 per thousand, producing a population growth rate of just 0.34 per thousand head of population. This means that the rate of population growth was the lowest since 1960.
This has been a persistent problem, triggered by the "one-child" policy pursued between 1980 and 2015. In 2016, a three-child policy was adopted. But that too did not arrest the decline.
To press couples to have three children, the government had instituted tax deductions, longer maternity leave, enhanced medical insurance, housing subsidies, extra money for a third child, and also a crackdown on expensive private tutoring. But still, the dream to have only well-educated children made couples have fewer kids than the government norm.
Education costs are high in China, especially for families which survive on low wages. And to earn these low wages they have to work long hours. The pandemic and the subsequent "Zero COVID" mass shutdowns worsened employment conditions.
As in the West, many Chinese women are also prioritising their careers over raising children. They either marry late or prefer to remain unmarried.
New York Times quotes Ren Zeping, an economist, to say that the government should set aside the equivalent of US$ 313 billion to help pay for incentives such as cash rewards, tax breaks for couples and more government child-care facilities for China to have 50 million more babies in 10 years. But apparently his view was disliked.
In a 2021 report, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) blamed China's top-down authoritarian and patriarchal approach to the issue of childbirth. Women have been denied the right to decide on how many children they should have. It was the 'one-child' policy first, then the 'two-child' policy, followed by the 'three-child' policy.
"The Chinese Communist Party should start to solve its population problem with a sincere, massive apology to China's women, say sorry for violating their rights to make their own choices on marriage, work, and reproduction and, in general, not doing enough to take down patriarchal systems that put the burden for having more children and caregiving squarely on women's shoulders," HRW said.
The rights watchdog also pointed out that "while Chinese women are more educated than ever, workplace gender discrimination keeps holding them back from achieving their full potential.
"In China, differences in mandated parental leave – mothers can get up to six months of maternity leave, while paternity leave is at most 30 days – have encouraged discriminatory practices by employers and reinforced harmful gender norms.
"With China's weak workplace protection laws, many companies are openly expressing a preference to hire men or women who've already had their children."
The HRW alleges that since the lifting of the one-child policy in 2016, numerous women have reported being asked about their childbearing status during job interviews, being forced to sign contracts pledging not to get pregnant or being demoted or fired for being pregnant.
Chinese law does ban such discriminatory practices, but it provides few effective enforcement mechanisms, HRW points out.
The government is also stepping up efforts to reduce abortions, said HRW. "In September 2021, the State Council, China's cabinet, in its Chinese Women's Development Guidelines for 2021-2030, identified reducing non-medically necessary abortions as a step toward women's development, one more example of its continued attacks on women's reproductive rights."
The HRW also pointed out that the People's Consultative Conference had said in an article (quoting expert opinion) that "parties responsible for unsuitable abortions" should be "severely punished."
It alleged that for 30 years, parents across the country who resisted complying with the one-child policy were harassed, detained, and had their property confiscated or houses demolished. "Authorities often levied enormous fines on families who violated the policy, forcing them into destitution.
"Children who were born outside of the one-child policy were denied legal documentation. As a result, until the hefty fine was paid, these children were unable to obtain an education, health care, or other forms of public services."
As in other parts of the world, due to economic development and better medical facilities, people in China live longer now than ever before. According to WHO, China has one of the fastest-growing aging populations in the world.
By 2019, there were 254 million older people aged 60 and over, and 176 million older people aged 65 and over. The proportion of over-60s in China rose from 18.7% in 2020 to 18.9% in 2021. By 2040, an estimated 402 million people (28% of the total population) will be over the age of 60.
"With a rapidly aging population, there is a vital need to create age-friendly cities and communities where older people can thrive and continue to make meaningful contributions to society, " said WHO.
China is trying to look after senior citizens, and "has been exploring innovative approaches to improving access to integrated care, including the establishment of an internet-based medical information platform.
"Continued investment in these innovations and creating an integrated, community-based social and health care system, along with chronic disease control and prevention, strengthened health services and a larger workforce, are essential to help China face the challenges ahead," said WHO.
The manpower shortage and the problem of an aging population have to be seen also in the context of the slowing down of China's economy exacerbated by the fall in exports, drop in consumer spending and COVID 19 restrictions.
The economic downturn has triggered youth unemployment. According to VOA, in 1999, fewer than one million people graduated from colleges in China. But now a record-breaking 10.7 million new college graduates have joined the Chinese job market.
Many of them face a tough time finding jobs. Youth unemployment in China reached 19.9% in July, VOA says quoting the latest data released by China's National Bureau of Statistics.