BEIJING/HONG KONG, Nov. 14 (Reuters) – Chinese software developer Tang Huajun enjoys playing with his two-year-old in their apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, but said it is unlikely he will have another child.
Such decisions by countless people like Tang will determine the course not only of China’s population, but also that of the world, which the United Nations says will reach 8 billion by Tuesday.
Tang, 39, said many of his married friends have only one child and, like him, are out of plans. Younger people aren’t even interested in getting married, let alone having babies, he said.
The high cost of childcare is a major barrier to having children in China, with many families in an increasingly mobile society unable to rely on grandparents who may live far away for help.
“Another reason is that many of us get married very late and it’s hard to get pregnant,” Tang said. “I think getting married late will definitely have an impact on births.”
Faced with the prospect of runaway population growth for decades, China imposed a strict one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 to keep numbers in check.
But now the United Nations expects China’s population to shrink from next year, when India is likely to become the world’s most populous country.
China’s fertility rate of 1.16 in 2021 was below the 2.1 OECD standard for a stable population and one of the lowest in the world.
The fear of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s strict measures to eradicate it may also have had a major impact on many people’s desire to have children, demographers say.
Demographers say the number of newborns in China will fall to record lows this year, below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million – which was already 11.5% lower than in 2020.
Beijing started allowing couples to have up to three children last year and the government has said it is working to achieve an “appropriate” birth rate.
OLD PEOPLE, NEW PROBLEMS
For planners, a shrinking population poses a whole new set of problems.
“We expect the aging population to increase very rapidly. This is a very important situation facing China, different from 20 years ago,” said Shen Jianfa, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The share of the population over the age of 65 is now about 13%, but will rise sharply. A declining working population is confronted with an increasing burden of care for the increasing number of elderly people.
“It will be very high in the coming years,” Shen said of the proportion of the elderly in the population. “That’s why the country needs to prepare for the upcoming aging population.”
Alarmed by the prospect of an aging society, China has tried to encourage couples to have more children with tax breaks and cash benefits, as well as more generous maternity leave, health insurance and housing subsidies.
But demographers say the measures aren’t enough. They cite high education costs, low wages and notoriously long hours, along with frustration over COVID restrictions and the general state of the economy.
A key factor is job prospects for young people, says Stuart Gietel Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Why have more babies if the people you have can’t even get jobs?”
Reporting by Thomas Suen and Farah Master; Edited by Robert Birsel
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