Last May, during China’s annual “two sessions” legislative meetings, the vice governor of the northeastern Liaoning province, Chen Xiangqun, put forward a bold suggestion for solving the region’s long-term demographic decline: allowing China’s three northeastern provinces to be the first to completely lift the national family-planning restrictions that limit most couples to just two children.
Chen’s proposal made waves in both political and media circles, and this winter, he finally got a reply. On Feb. 18, 2021, China’s National Health Commission posted an official response to Chen on its website. Calling Chen’s suggestion “valuable,” the NHC said it was of the opinion that “Northeast China can begin exploring practical measures locally and conducting expert research into the effects of lifting birth restrictions on local economic growth, social harmony and stability, resource and environmental strategies, and basic public services.”
“On this basis,” the missive concluded, “(the NHC) proposes that Northeast China become a pilot zone for implementing a comprehensive family-planning policy.”
The NHC quickly backtracked after its announcement attracted widespread attention both inside and outside China, clarifying that it had been “misunderstood.” Nevertheless, there are indications that Northeast China — defined as Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces — will become the first region in the country to fully lift birth restrictions. If these indications pan out, the decision can likely be attributed to the Chinese government’s desire to reverse years of local population decline. According to the 2019 Statistical Bulletin on National Economic and Social Development, the registered populations of Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces fell that year by 76,000, 133,300, and 218,000, respectively.
Falling fertility isn’t limited to the country’s northeastern Rust Belt, however. Last year, the number of registered births in China fell by 15%. And in 2019, the latest year for which full statistics are available, the country’s birth rate was its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic. Late last year, the head of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, Li Jiheng, warned that, “At present, Chinese people are relatively unwilling to have children, the fertility rate has already fallen below the warning line, and population growth has entered into a critical turning point.”
It is increasingly clear that China must face its shrinking population problem head-on. Even then, however, it may be too late. Once a country’s population begins to decline, that process is extremely difficult to reverse. Over the past few decades, there have been virtually no cases of countries reversing population decline after birth rates started to fall. In Japan, South Korea, and Singapore — the countries with fertility patterns most similar to China’s — births have been falling for years, despite their governments’ best efforts to incentivize childbearing.
In addition, several of the factors contributing to China’s drop in fertility are only likely to become more serious in the near to long term. It’s often said that “development is the best contraceptive,” and China continues to develop rapidly. The country is also still urbanizing, and the fertility rate in cities tends to be significantly lower than in the countryside.
Then there are the psychological and ideological effects of the transition on modern life and thought. Trends such as the rise in women’s status, changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce, an embrace of the single or parentless lifestyles, openness toward the LGBT community, and China’s male-female demographic imbalance will all push fertility down.
Macro-level fertility policies are unlikely to have much effect on couples’ willingness to have more children. Under the current two-child policy, implemented in 2016, the total fertility rate could theoretically have risen to around two births per woman. The end of the one-child policy did indeed result in a brief spike, but it didn’t last long. The current fertility rate is about 1.6 — far below the replacement level of 2.1. Any economic incentives, meanwhile, are likely to be a drop in the ocean for a society consumed by intensive — and expensive — parenting.
In other words, the government may find encouraging families to have more children even more challenging than implementing birth limits had been all those years ago.
As such, while we shouldn’t give up on brainstorming ways to avert population decline, we also need to be asking ourselves another question: What do we do if China’s population decline cannot be halted?
A nurse records a newborn’s footprint in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, April 2019. People Visual
To start, we can discard any notions of an “ideal” population density. The United States covers a similar area as China, but its population is about a quarter the size of China’s. India, meanwhile, is just one-third the size of China, but its population will soon surpass China’s. There are pros and cons to different population sizes. If the country’s population shrinks a bit, it’s not the end of the world. Take the metrics measured by the Human Development Index, for example: As China’s fertility rate has declined, its per capita GDP has increased, life expectancy has gone up, and educational levels have improved.
Instead of focusing on trying to find the perfect population density, we need to focus on ameliorating the knock-on effects of a shrinking population. As China’s population falls, the country will face a potential aging crisis. For the foreseeable future, not being able to financially support themselves in old age will be a real concern for many Chinese.
To care for its ballooning elderly population, the government needs to think outside the box. That means experimenting with new policies and avoiding the fatal conceit that it can control everything. There’s no need to be rash in adopting policies such as raising the retirement age. Instead, it should focus on increasing elder care resources by expanding or building new nursing homes, especially in rural areas. Second, it should centralize elder care, ensuring high-quality services while achieving economies of scale. Third, it should invest in new technologies. Key scientific advances can lead to huge productivity increases and help provide the material foundations needed to care for China’s graying population.
Individuals, too, should prepare for what’s coming. In the absence of a sudden baby boom, we must be ready to support ourselves in old age. Demographics are a complicated subject in an already complex society. In the end, however, our lives and fates are in our own hands.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A nurse takes care of newborns at a hospital in Xiangyang, Hubei province, Feb. 12, 2021. Gong Bo/People Visual)