A report issued last month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences suggests that the world’s most populous nation is facing the challenge of a shrinking population.
This is the effect of China’s one-child policy, a program implemented in 1980 to limit most Chinese families to one child each. Exceptions were made for parents of disabled children, members of China’s “minority populations”, or the birth of twins.
For most Chinese parents, exceeding the one child limit led to punitive measures such as fines or the withholding of medical and other benefits.
However, the policy led to an ongoing fall in birth rate. In November 2013, China announced a decision to relax the one-child policy. Under the new policy, families could have two children if one parent was an only child. Since then, 90 million women have become eligible to have a second child.
Despite this, the birth rate continues to fall, with 17.2 million babies born in 2017 compared to 17.9 in 2016. The Global Times, a party-run newspaper, says the total number of births for 2018 could fall to as low as 15 million. At the same time, average life expectancy has risen.
The decline in birth rate and increased life expectancy means that soon there will not be enough workers to support a large aging population. The Academy estimates the contraction will begin in 2027, though others believe it could come sooner, or has already begun.
China’s policy changes in recent years have aimed at creating a “baby boom”, but this has failed to occur, and could create an even greater burden on China’s economy. With fewer workers in the future, the government could struggle to pay for a population that is growing older and living longer.
Part of the reason is China’s economic and social success. With rising prosperity and new opportunities for women, many young Chinese are said to favour career over family. Some say frankly that China’s economic expansion means young couples now struggle with economic pressures making it difficult to have even one child, let alone two.