To actively respond to a labor shortage and a rapidly aging population, the Central authorities unveiled a policy on May 31 that would allow all couples in the country to have up to three children.
When talking about population, we should at first have a cool-headed review of China's demographic conditions and the family planning policies during the past decades to make sure that birth policy adjustments serve our nation well in the future.
China witnessed a baby boom and population explosion in the 1950s and 1960s. According to statistics, the country's birth rate was as high as 6 per woman at that time. In the late 1970s, China first introduced the family planning policy to rein in the surging population by allowing most urban couples to have only one child and most rural couples to have two children, if the first child was a girl.
The policy has effectively controlled China's population growth, but it has also resulted in a looming shortage in the working-age population and unreasonable demographic structure. In the face of the ever-declining birth rate and the challenge of an aging society, China in 2013 began to ease the family planning policy and allowed couples to have a second child if either the husband or wife was an only child, and in 2016 allowed all married couples to have two children, phasing out the one-child policy.
The universal two-child policy since 2016 had temporarily stimulated China's birth rate. It was reported that 17.86 million babies were born in 2016. However, only about 12 million babies were born in 2020. China's latest national census data, published in May 2021, showed a fertility rate of only 1.3 children per woman in 2020, which was on a par with aging countries such as Japan. The rate is even lower in some first-tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen.
Under this circumstance, the three-child policy was considered and adopted. Such a policy is good. On the one hand, it aims to stabilize birth and maintain China's sustainable growth, and will surely boom the businesses of medical service, clothing, toys, education and other related industries. On the other hand, it will also help achieve gender balance and reduce abortion in the country. As we know, many traditional Chinese families have a preference for boys. Under the one-child policy, many parents who could not afford hefty fines at that time chose to abort girls before their births through illegal tests or even abandoned them after their births.
Raising is more important than giving birth. Raising is also more difficult than giving birth. A recent poll in Shenzhen shows that 94 percent of young couples in the city do not want more children due to economic insecurity and the rising costs of raising children. For example, a larger apartment is needed when a family has more children and this poses a formidable financial burden amid expectation of a further rise in home prices. In addition to financial burdens, difficulties in finding qualified caretakers for children is also an important reason to deter more births. In China, about 70 percent of the working-age women are employed, and many women hesitate to have more children because of concerns that caring for babies may affect their careers.
Given that many young couples are even unwilling to have a second child, how can they then be encouraged to have a third child?
The Central Government should refine supporting polices to introduce favorable measures such as tax cuts, birth rewards, subsidies for the third child, prolonged maternity leave, and reducing the childbearing and education costs for families with three children.
Improving the public service system, such as providing affordable nurseries, housing, prenatal and postnatal medical checks and medical care, is also very important. More support is needed to build nurseries and day-care centers to ease the burden of parents. Big institutions and companies should be encouraged to have their own day-care facilities in workplaces. Such facilities will not only free mothers from worrying about how to look after their babies, but also make breastfeeding easier.
As a responsible country, while encouraging more births, China should also show great concern and continue aid packages for one-child families formed prior to the nation's adoption of the universal two-child policy in 2016, especially those couples who have lost their only child and are too aged to give birth to another one.
(The author is the editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)