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CWA # 511, 18 July 2021

China Reader
The new three-child policy is two decades too late

  Dincy Adlakha

China’s three-child policy is aimed at addressing the workforce-ageing population equation; but it is too late

The recent national census published by the National Bureau of Statistics of China (NBS) led to a series of events that may be one of the greatest factors altering China’s upcoming decades. Although the declining birth rate and ageing population of the country were being documented before the census as well, the national census worked as a wake-up call for the Chinese administration. Within days of the census, China also extended the upper limit of the number of children can have in mainland China from two to three. This meant that the couples longing for more children were free to do so. But the unwillingness of couples persists as an unaccounted problem.

This new Three Child Policy is aimed at addressing the issues posed by the Chinese demographics. With the lowest birthrate in its entire modern history, the country faces a crisis of an ageing population. Almost 19 per cent of the Chinese population falls in the above 60 range. This means that not only are they an unproductive sector (economy-wise), they also consume health care benefits and other social welfares from the state. Almost a fifth of the country’s population is above 60 and the active working population is reducing fast. The labour costs shoot up and healthcare costs rise. The country’s state national fund is also facing humongous pressure from this challenge. More amount is extracted from the few people working in the country to suffice for the pension needs of the elderly. It is estimated that the elderly population of China would reach 300 million by the end of 2025, which is when the state’s national pension fund will run out. This causes huge dents on the economy. Considering these hurdles, the Chinese administration passed the three child policy to give a boost to the shrinking workforce and relieve some internal economic pressure.

But, the move is two decades too late.

Demographers have been warning of an uncontrollable situation for long and are even opining that the policy should have been introduced in the late 1990s. They have demanded this change for decades. Multiple reasons work in sync which will show the decision to its grave.

The one-child policy has led to today’s ageing society of China. With the one-child policy running a long time in modern Chinese history, the idea of small families has ingrained in the fabric of Chinese society. Furthermore, the rising costs of living and education, especially in cities, has led parents to focus all their energy and money on a single child. Despite the extension of the limit on the number of children per couple, the customs preferring one child still exist in Chinese society. Education and health care benefits can be availed by the first child only. In many cases, even the registration of the second child is missed which leaves no legal record of the second child, making them a non-existent entity. These hurdles have come in the way of young couples and their family planning. The majority of the city dwellers prefer one child and are not even ready to consider having a second child. Hence, the trends show a falling birth rate for the past few years. In 2016, when the limit was expanded to two children from the former one-child policy, there was a boost in the birth rate of the year. But, this boost was attributed almost entirely to second births. Couples longing for a second child made quick use of the policy expansion leading to the boost but, the number of first births continued to drop due to the growing debt to income ratio.

Another major reason behind the failure of the policy rests in pure numbers. The fertility rate of China is 1.3, which is much lower than the required 2.1 replacement rate. The number of childbearing women present in current Chinese society is a low figure. One child policy was accompanied by sex-determined female infanticide and foeticide. The number of women between 20 and 35 years in China was the highest in 1997. It has fallen with great speed ever since. If the number of eligible women in society continues to reduce, the fertility rate is bound to drop. The present Chinese women are undergoing a cultural shift, which results in a large number of young women placing career and academics before marriage and household. Women postponing or rejecting marriage and children has greatly affected the fertility rate of the country.

Hence, the allowance of having three children per couple does not entice the current generation. Even if the move worked (only possible with the addition of educational and healthcare incentives), the children born in 2021 will be able to contribute to the workforce after two decades. Until they are of earning ages, they only add to the dependent population in the country. 

Hence, the new three child policy of China will fail to have an impact on the Chinese demography without additional support systems to provide neo-natal, child-care, education, and health-care facilities in an affordable manner. With the spiralling individualistic lifestyle, the goal of broadening the workforce seems unrealistic. China is too late in implementing the only long-term solution which could have saved it from the demographic crisis.
 



Dincy Adlakha is a research intern at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS, Bangalore. She is currently pursuing Masters of Arts in International Studies at CHRIST (Deemed to be University). Her research areas include China’s society and demography with special reference to the minorities in China. She is currently working on the Chinese position in the new world order.

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