Talk to any young woman in urban China about the prospects of having children and the chances are, they are not keen.
It costs too much to give kids a decent life. The stuff they teach at school is propaganda, so I’d like to send them to an international school or abroad. But I can’t afford that,” said Kongkong, a 26-year-old researcher who swears she will not have children.
This week, the Chinese government announced the country has entered an “era of negative population growth”, after figures showed a historic drop in the number of people for the first time since the great famine between 1958 and 1961. The population fell by 850,000 to 1.41 billion people in 2022, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
But unlike the famine, whose effects were temporary, scholars say this marks the beginning of a long period of population decline.
Alarmed by the country’s increasingly low total fertility rate, Chinese demographers campaigned to scrap the one-child policy for more than a decade, before the government finally ended it in 2015. But by that time, it was too late to reverse the trend.
Since the 1990s, China’s total fertility rate – the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime – has declined below the replacement level of 2.1. The figure was 1.30 in 2020 and fell to 1.15 in 2021.
Fearing the adverse effects of an aging population coupled with a shortage of working-age people, the Chinese government allowed couples to have two children in 2015 and further eased the birth limit to three in 2021.
For years, studies have found the rising costs of bringing up children and the lack of welfare provisions to be the main reasons behind China’s low fertility rate. In recent years, the government has begun to offer incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies for childcare and longer parental leave while discouraging abortions. An academic even controversially suggested that social welfare and pensions should be linked to the number of children people have. But these measures have failed to trigger a baby boom.
The bleak picture has been compounded by widespread pessimism brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Frustrated by increasingly iron-fisted government policies during the Covid lockdowns, young Chinese people have adopted an apathetic “lying flat” philosophy, which encourages a rejection of high-pressure jobs. In their 20s and 30s, many resist doing what is expected of them and instead settle for a low-desire life or move abroad. Having children is the last thing on their minds. An online survey last year of more than 20,000 people, mostly urban women between 18 and 25, found that two-thirds have a “low birth desire”.
“The last generation”
Last year, a video went viral in China showing a young man who refused to be taken into a quarantine camp being warned by the police that his punishment would affect his family for three generations. He coolly retorted: “We are the last generation, thank you.”
The phrase became a popular online meme and the hashtag #thelastgeneration generated millions of comments before it was censored. Many said the abuse of rights under draconian Covid policies had put them off having children.
“In this country, to love your child is to never let him be born in the first place,” read one comment.
“This resonated deeply in me… I bought a T-shirt with ‘We are the last generation’ written on it. I cannot bring a child into this world to let him suffer,” Kongkong said.
Eunice, a 34-year-old English tutor, said: “I heard that some hospitals refused to treat children who couldn’t produce negative test results … The pandemic brought on a strong feeling of uncertainty. Having children is not something I’m considering now.”
Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the population decline had begun almost a decade earlier than the United Nations had predicted. As recently as 2019, the UN projected China’s population to peak in 2031-32.
Wang said the population decline could be attributed to the one-child policy that began three and a half decades ago, which resulted in a smaller number of women of childbearing age, people delaying or giving up on marriage and a smaller number of births within marriages.
But the pandemic has worsened the situation.
“The last two could be exacerbated by the three-year Covid pandemic, which brought much uncertainty and pessimism among the young people,” he said.
Experts say although the population decline will not immediately affect China’s economy – as the total labor force is still vast at above 790 million – it nonetheless reveals how unsustainable China’s growth model is.
Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing who formerly taught at Tsinghua University, said young people’s growth discontent with authoritarian rule and reluctance to have children had demonstrated the “irreconcilable conflict” with the country’s goal of economic growth. These issues, along with workers’ protests and the shortage of laborers, are leading to “the bankruptcy of the Chinese model”, which had relied on a cheap and vast labor force.
“This growth model is unsustainable,” he said.
Chien-Chung Wu, an associate professor at Taipei University of Maritime Technology, said the population decline would eventually have a huge impact on China’s economy. He believes the shrinking of the labor force and consumer market would make China lose its edge and prompt foreign businesses to turn to other Asian countries.
While Wang does not expect the economic impact to be imminent, he believes the population drop is a wake-up call to reform the inadequate health care system and hukou household registration system, which restricts people’s movement including by preventing rural children from joining their parents working away in cities.
Robin Maynard, an executive director of the UK-based Population Matters, however, said a smaller Chinese population should be celebrated for helping curb the climate crisis and urged China to use an older workforce rather than rely on birthrate.
Xiaoqian Zhu contributed research to this article.