Time and money for love: China mulls ways to raise birth rate

HONG KONG, March 15 (Reuters) – Concerned about China’s shrinking population, government policy advisers have made more than 20 recommendations to boost the birth rate, although experts say the best they can do is to slow the decline of the population.

China dug itself into a demographic hole largely thanks to its one-child policy imposed between 1980 and 2015. Authorities raised the limit to three in 2021, but even during the stay-at-home couples hesitated to have babies.

Young people cite the high costs of childcare and education, low incomes, weak social safety nets and gender inequalities as discouraging factors.

Proposals to boost the birth rate, made at the annual meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) this month, range from grants to families raising their first child, rather than just the second and third , expanding free public education and improving access to fertility treatments.

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Experts saw the large number of proposals as a positive sign that China was urgently addressing its aging and declining demographics, after data showed the population was shrinking for the first time in six decades last year.

“You can’t change the downward trend,” said Xiujian Peng, senior researcher at the Center for Policy Studies at the University of Victoria in Australia. “But without any policy to encourage fertility, fertility will decline even more.”

A motion by CPPCC member Jiang Shengnan that young people only work eight hours a day so they have time to “fall in love, get married and have children” was key to ensuring that women are not overworked, Peng said.

Giving incentives to have a first child could encourage couples to have at least one child, she said. Many provinces currently only subsidize the second and third children.

To help ease the pressure on young families, the National Health Commission (NHC) released draft rules on Wednesday that would allow qualified people to run child care centers for up to five children up to the age of three years.

China’s birth rate last year fell to 6.77 births per 1,000 people, from 7.52 births in 2021, the lowest on record.

Demographers warn that China will age before it gets richer as its workforce shrinks and indebted local governments spend more on their elderly population.

Experts also welcomed a proposal to scrap all family planning measures, including the three-child limit and the requirement for women to be legally married to register their children.

Arjan Gjonca, associate professor at the London School of Economics, said financial incentives were not enough and that policies focusing on gender equality and improving women’s employment rights were likely to have more impact. impact.

CPPCC proposals such as government-paid rather than employer-paid maternity leave would help reduce discrimination against women, while increased paternity leave would remove a barrier for fathers to shoulder more parenting, experts said.

Demographer Yi Fuxian remains skeptical whether any measures would have a significant impact on their own, saying China needs a “paradigm revolution of its entire economy, society, politics and of his diplomacy to stimulate fertility”.

Reporting by Farah Master, additional reporting by Albee Zhang; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Simon Cameron-Moore

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