Chinese birthrate hits record low, despite end of one-child policy

Chinese birthrate hits record low, despite end of one-child policy

By Luke Vargas   
Published
A quiet street in the Chinese city of Baiyin. Flickr photo: Adam Cohn
A quiet street in the Chinese city of Baiyin. Flickr photo: Adam Cohn

China's shift to a two-child policy hasn't led to larger families, a development that could impede economic growth plans in coming decades.

NEW YORK  The Chinese government announced Monday that the country’s birthrate hit an all-time low in 2018, with just 10.94 births per thousand people. That’s down 10 percent from 10 years ago and down a third from 1999.

Barry Naughton is a professor of the Chinese economy at the University of California San Diego.

“This is important. This is the first year where we really get to see how Chinese are responding to the fact that they’re not under pressure to limit their births.”

China announced an end to its infamous one-child policy three years ago, but it’s taken time to be officially rolled back and for people to make family-planning decisions as a result.

“The fact that not only do we not have a surge in births, but we actually have a decline, it’s really very important for the long-term evolution of China.”

Planners in Beijing are watching the demographic data closely, since a drop in new births now will mean a smaller workforce in the years ahead.

“Not today, but in about 15 years, the drop in the labor market is going to be pretty steep, and they’re worried about it. Because they think, correctly, that a slow reduction in the size of the birthrate is no big deal, but if it drops relatively sharply, it could be disruptive to the development path that the economy is on.”

Yet having handed citizens the chance to choose the ideal family size, Naughton says Beijing will struggle to use coercion or incentives to distract from the country’s competitive academic landscape, crowded job market or soaring real estate prices  each of which is driving families to funnel resources toward a single child.

“But the one thing we can say is, these things do change over decades. It may well be that five or ten years from now, Chinese families will start to decide, oh, this is actually the most precious thing  to have a larger family. So behavior can still change, but I don’t think the government can make the behavior change.”

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