BEIJING/HONG KONG, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Chinese software developer Tang Huajun loves to play with his two-year-old at their apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, but he said he is unlikely to have another child.
Such decisions by countless people like Tang will determine the trajectory of not only China’s population but also the world’s, which is expected to reach 8 billion, according to the United Nations on Tuesday.
Tang, 39, said many of his married friends only have one child and, like him, have no further 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, as many families in an increasingly mobile society cannot rely on the help of grandparents who may live far away.
“Another reason is that a lot of us get married very late and it’s hard to get pregnant,” Tang said. “I think late marriage will definitely affect births.”
For decades, China grappled with the prospect of rapid population growth, imposing a strict one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 to keep the numbers in check.
But now the United Nations expects China’s population to start shrinking 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 OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population and among the lowest in the world.
Fears of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s strict measures to eradicate it may also have had a profound impact on many people’s desire to have children, demographers say.
According to demographers, birth rates in China will fall to record lows this year, falling below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million – already down 11.5% from 2020.
Beijing last year began allowing couples to have up to three children and the government has said it is working to achieve a “reasonable” birth rate.
OLD PEOPLE, NEW PROBLEMS
For planners, a shrinking population presents a whole new set of problems.
“We expect the aging population to increase very rapidly. This is a very important situation for China, unlike 20 years ago,” said Shen Jianfa, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The proportion of people over 65 in the population is now around 13%, but will rise sharply. A shrinking workforce faces an increasing burden of caring for the increasing number of elderly people.
“It will be very high for a few more years,” Shen said of the proportion of older people in the population. “Therefore, the country must prepare for the coming ageing.”
Troubled by the prospect of an aging society, China is trying to encourage couples to have more children with tax breaks and cash donations, as well as more generous maternity leave, health insurance and housing benefits.
But demographers say the measures are not enough. They cite high costs of education, 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, said Stuart Gietel Basten, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Why would you have more babies when the people you have can’t even get jobs?”
Reporting by Thomas Suen and Farah Master; Edited by Robert Birsel
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