As world population hits 8 billion, China frets over too few babies

BEIJING/HONG KONG, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Chinese software developer Tan Huajun loves playing with his two-year-old son at his apartment on the outskirts of Beijing, but said he is unlikely to have another child.

The decisions of countless individuals like Tang will shape the path not only of Chinese society but of the world, which the UN says will reach 8 billion people on Tuesday.

Tang, 39, said that many of her married friends have only one child and, like her, no other plans. According to him, young people are not even interested in getting married, let alone having children.

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 many of us marry very late and it’s hard to get pregnant,” Tang said. “I think late marriage definitely affects fertility.”

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China has grappled with the prospect of a rising exodus for decades and imposed a strict one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 to control the numbers.

But the United Nations now expects China’s population to decline from next year, when India will likely become the world’s most populous country.

China’s birth rate was 1.16 in 2021, below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population and among the lowest in the world.

Demographers say the grief of the coronavirus pandemic and China’s strict measures to contain it may have had a profound effect on many people’s desire to have children.

The number of new births in China will fall to a record low this year, demographers say, down from 10.6 million last year to less than 10 million, which is already 11.5% lower than in 2020.

Beijing last year allowed couples to have up to three children, and the government said it was working to achieve an “appropriate” birth rate.

PEOPLE, NEW PROBLEMS

For planners, population decline poses a whole new challenge.

Shen Jianfa, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said: “We expect the number of elderly people to increase very rapidly. This is a very important situation that China is different from 20 years ago.”

The share of the population aged over 65 is currently around 13%, but will increase significantly. A shrinking workforce faces an increasing burden of caring for a growing population of older people.

“It’s going to be very high for a few years,” Shen said of the proportion of elderly people in the population. “Therefore, the country must prepare for the aging of the future.”

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Worried about the prospect of an aging society, China is trying to encourage couples to have more children with tax breaks and cash handouts, as well as generous maternity leave, health insurance and housing subsidies.

But demographers say that these measures are not enough. They point to high tuition costs, low wages and notoriously long work hours, along with frustration over COVID restrictions and the general state of the economy.

Stuart Gitel Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the main factor was job prospects for young people.

“Why do you have more children when the people you have can’t even get jobs?”

Reporting by Thomas Suen and Farah Master; Edited by Robert Birsel

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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