The birthrate in China fell last year, alarming government officials who had confidently predicted a baby boom following their relaxation of the one-child policy.
In 2016, the Chinese Communist Party abandoned its decades-long one-child policy and allowed all couples to have two children. China’s National Commission of Health and Family Planning confidently predicted that the new two-child policy would result in at least 20 million new births.
The state’s birth planners were wrong.
The National Bureau of Statistics reported on January 19th that there were only 17.2 million births in 2017, down from 17.9 million births the year before. The numbers not only fell millions short of the projected number, they suggest that the birth rate in China is set to dramatically decline in the future years.
Making matters worse, tens of millions of women have been eliminated from the population by sex-selection abortions and female infanticide. The result is fewer women of childbearing age in China and a further dip in the birthrate. Even the Chinese government, proven to be over-optimistic in its projections of future births, says that the number of newborns will drop to 16 million after 2020.
As the South China Morning Post pointed out on Sunday, “The harsh new reality faced by the authorities in Beijing is that China’s population is aging at a faster rate than previously imagined and the country’s shortages of workers, students and babies are set to worsen at an alarming rate.”
With almost 1.4 billion people, China still has the world’s largest population. But the country is now facing the dismal prospect of having too few young people to drive its economy forward, or support its large and growing population of elderly.
Already, with 158 million people older than 65, China has the world’s largest population of elderly. And their ranks are growing by roughly 8 million each year. From underfunded — or non-existent — pension funds to the lack of elderly care facilities, China is obviously woefully underprepared for an aging society.
I, for one, am not surprised at China’s birth dearth. As I testified before the Congressional-Executive Committee on China in 2015, I didn’t expect the newly declared two-child amnesty to make much of a difference in the Chinese birth rate.
“Forty years of anti-natal, anti-child propaganda has left its mark on the Chinese psyche,” I said at the time. “Few Chinese young people, who are themselves only children—and often the children of only children—are inclined to be generous when it comes to having children of their own. They would rather spend their limited incomes on material goods rather than, say, disposable diapers.”
For years, Chinese authorities bragged about the “success” of the one-child policy, which they proudly stated had eliminated 400 million people from the population. Today, as the number of babies born in China continues to drop, they are worriedly discussing what measures they can take to boost the birth rate.
For now, these efforts appear to focus on offering incentives to couples to have children. Among those measures being considered are tax breaks and subsidies. One proposal is to offer 10,000 yuan per year, about $1500, to a family with a second child. Another is to follow European countries in making education free.
But such measures may already be a matter of “too little, too late.” Moreover, implementing them would be enormously costly, running 5 or 6 percent of GDP, which is more than China admits spending on its military.
The Chinese are not alone in having below-replacement fertility, of course. Every developed Asian country, from Japan and South Korea, to Taiwan and Singapore, is suffering from the same demographic malaise. The difference is that these countries grew rich before they began growing old. China, as a result of its misguided one-child policy, is growing old before it is rich.
But unlike other Asian countries that are suffering from a demographic deficit, China is ruled by a Communist Party that is notorious for doing whatever it takes to impose its will on the Chinese people.
At present, couples are permitted to have a second child, but I do not expect the matter to end there. If the Chinese people insist on not procreating according to plan, the Party will soon move beyond “encouraging” couples to have a second child.
If the higher birth rate called for by China’s new Planned Birth policy cannot be achieved voluntarily, China’s leaders will inevitably order their people to procreate by fiat.
After all, the one-child policy was enforced by fiat as well. In 1980, paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping ordered his officials to “use whatever means you must” to force the birthrate down. “With the support of the Communist Party, you have nothing to fear,” Deng assured them.
Chinese officials took Deng at his word, and women were rounded up en masse to be aborted, sterilized, or contracepted. As the first American scholar allowed to do research in China in 1980, I was an eyewitness to these crimes against humanity.
The same Party officials who have been responsible for decades of forced abortions and sterilizations on millions of young women would presumably have no qualms enforcing mandatory pregnancy on them, if they were ordered to do so.
A Chinese Communist Party bent on regulating its population under a state plan will do whatever it takes to “produce” the number of children it has ordered reproduced.
If the birth rate in China continues to drop, childbearing may well become mandatory. Regular pelvic examinations may be instituted to monitor menstrual cycles and plan pregnancies. Abortion may be forbidden.
The best course of action for an aging China would be to abandon the Planned Birth policy altogether. Couples in China — like couples in other countries — should be free to choose the number and spacing of their children. They should have as many, or as few, children as they desire.
Steven W. Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute and author of Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream Is the New Threat to World Order.