In yet another move in a series of steps taken to boost fertility rates in China, a county in the country is offering couples a reward of 1,000 yuan (USD 137), if the bride is aged 25 years or younger. The minimum legal age for marriage in China is 22 years for men and 20 years for women. The notice in this regard was published on Changshan county’s official Wechat account earlier in August, stating that the reward was to promote “age-appropriate marriage and childbearing” for first marriages. One of the parties, however, must have their household registration in Changshan to qualify for the reward.
The notice also mentioned other subsidies, including 5,000 yuan (USD 688) and 10,000 yuan (USD 1,377) each year for second and third children born in the county up until the age of three and free annual gynaecological examinations for women with three kids. Besides, Changshan families with one child will get an annual subsidy of 500 yuan (USD 68), families with two children will get 1,000 yuan (USD 137) per year while those with three children will get an annual subsidy of 2,000 yuan (USD 275). Families in the county with two or more kids under the age of 16 years will also be able to avail free public transport and after-school services, as well as various medical subsidies.
“I do not,” say Chinese youths
According to the Chinese government data released in June, only 6.8 million marriages were solemnised in China in 2022. This was 800,000 fewer marriages than in 2021 and a record low since 1986. According to official statistics, the number of marriage registrations (4.282 million) in the first quarter across China peaked in 2013. Since then, the figure has decreased year after year.
The country’s fertility rate also fell to a record low of 1.09 in 2022. This is well below the “replacement fertility rate” for developed countries (2.1), at which a stable population can be maintained. Only 9.56 million babies were born in China in 2022, compared to 10.62 million in 2021. According to Qiao Jie, dean of the Health Science Centre at Peking University, births in China could even drop below 8 million in 2023. In short, for the first time in six decades, the country’s population has started shrinking.
Experts cite high childcare costs and women putting off having children or getting married in favour of their careers as the reasons behind these declining numbers. Even today, women are primarily responsible for taking care of children in China as gender discrimination and traditional stereotypes remain prevalent in society. Also, as the Chinese economy continues to struggle, young people regardless of gender are delaying marriage. The Covid-19 pandemic further fuelled young people’s insecurities, worsening the numbers.
Money and more for young parents
Last year, China’s population shrank by 850,000 to 1.4118 billion, marking the first fall since 1961. An ageing population can have severe repercussions on China’s economy, labour force, and healthcare system. Amid a slowing economy, this demographic crisis may translate into a reduced demand for housing, a weaker consumer market, a shrinking labour pool and challenges to the state pension fund in China.
Consequently, Changshan is not the only county in China taking measures to encourage marriages and births. In April, a district in Zhejiang’s Shaoxing city announced a gift package worth 1,000 yuan (USD 137) to newlyweds of any age. Similarly in Hangzhou, home to e-commerce giant Alibaba, the government is granting new parents nearly USD 2,900 for having a third child.
Some provinces are giving money to sperm donors while in Sichuan, health authorities have allowed unmarried couples to raise families and enjoy benefits reserved for married couples. Earlier, there was a ban on single women giving birth. Authorities in the region have also announced that couples can have as many children as they want.
Late in August, on the occasion of the Qixi Festival, often referred to as the Chinese Valentine’s Day, the local health commission in the city of Xian sent text messages to people, appealing to couples to “get married and give birth at an appropriate age … carry on the Chinese heritage and share in the responsibility of national rejuvenation”. But the most significant step to tackle the challenge of dropping birth rates was taken in 2016, when the Chinese government abolished its one-child policy. The policy, in effect since the late 1970s, promoted among other things, late marriages, and late and fewer births.
Too little, too late and a worrying trend
Analysts, however, say this slew of measures hasn’t been particularly effective. In April, the United Nations (UN) declared India as the world’s most populous nation. China and India had nearly identical levels of fertility in 1971. But China’s fertility rate fell to fewer than three births per woman by the end of 1970s. India took three-and-a-half decades more to experience the same slowdown. Now, according to the UN, India’s population will continue growing for the next several decades to peak around 2064. China’s population, however, has reached its peak, and before the end of the century, it may dip to below 1 billion.
Demographers say China may have unwittingly fallen into the “low-fertility trap”. According to this hypothesis, a series of self-reinforcing economic and social mechanisms make it increasingly difficult to raise the fertility rate, once it dips below a certain threshold. A lower fertility rate leads to more personal consumption, but it also results in an ageing population and less job creation, which further disincentivizes having children. Also, as the average family size becomes smaller in each generation, the social norm of an ideal family size shrinks, too. Most importantly, this turn in policies is not going to bode well for China’s women who have long faced systemic discrimination. Apart from being a blatantly derogatory directive, to ask increasingly well-educated and capable women to bear children and take on household responsibilities clearly means that the Communist Party is turning a blind eye towards their potential for China’s workforce and contributions to the nation’s progress. What is worse is that recent policies such as in Changshan county would ultimately push young women away from higher education and skilling and towards a patriarchal social structure. It is not hard to imagine that women who marry young will bear two or more children by age 30 and end up exiting the university or workforce permanently due to the burden of child-rearing. Under Xi Jinping it seems, the Party believes it can redress the injustices of the past with even greater injustices. China’s feminists and women’s rights proponents are staring at the worst possible backsliding in social progress since the Cultural Revolution.