When Chinese leaders think about the future of the country, their main concern is not the position they will occupy then in the world or if there will be a war between powers.
The greatest threat they see is the aging of its population, the fastest in the world. And the figures that the National Statistics Office (NEO) made public last Friday feed the unease: in 2019 the birth rate has fallen for the third consecutive year and has been placed at its lowest level since the founding of the People’s Republic of China seven decades ago, although three years ago the one-child policy was eliminated.
According to NEO’s data, in 2019, 14.6 million babies were born in China, half a million less than the previous year and 1.5 million less than in 2017.
Not so few were born since 1961, in full famine of the Great Leap Forward years. The birth rate is 10.48 per thousand inhabitants, higher than that of Japan or South Korea, but lower than that of the United States and well below that of the world average of 18.65 million in 2017.
The figures are worrisome for the most populous country in the world, with 1.4 billion inhabitants, but facing a rapid pace of aging. If in 2010 only 8% of the population exceeded 60, by 2030 that number will reach 25%.
In 2050, the problem is going to be graver, because one in three Chinese: almost 490 million people, or more than the entire European Union after Brexit will be older than 60 years of age. This is a process generated in part by the lengthening of life expectancy – 76 years – thanks to greater prosperity, and partly by the one-child policy imposed in 1979.
As they are fully aware of the problem, Chinese authorities have tried to implement measures to stimulate birth. The main one, the elimination in 2016 of the one-child policy.
Since then, all married couples can have two children and rumors have been constant about the possibility of permanently eliminating all restrictions so that families can have as many children as they wish.
The problem is that parents no longer want to have children. The same prosperity that has lengthened life expectancy has changed the attitudes of young couples, in a process similar to that of other developed economies.
The proportion of divorces increases and the number of weddings decreases. The rate of marriages in 2018 was 7.8 per thousand inhabitants, the lowest since 2013, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Those who get married do it later and later in life.
Those who do get married – only couples who are receiving official permission to have offspring – are also not, in general, very excited to have more than one child.
They cite, among other problems, the high cost of healthcare and an education that allows their children to compete with an advantage in the world’s second economy. Experts also focus their attention on the lack of time to devote to parenting before demanding work schedules.
Although the birth rate did pick up immediately after the end of the one-child policy, it did not do so in the amounts that Chinese officials had expected.
Projections of 20 million births were never reached. In 2017, the year after the abolition of the one-child policy and the one with the highest birth rate in recent history, 17.23 million babies were born, many of them second children.
Since then, according to experts, the demand for other children besides the firstborn has already been satisfied for most families. In part, the problem is that no other complementary measures have been put in place to encourage young couples with more children, experts say.
Among them, they suggest tax deductions for the second child, facilities for families with more children to buy larger homes or a greater number of public nurseries.
The main problem for most Chinese parents is not having assistance to raise their children, especially if it is the second or third one.