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18 May 2024 18:41
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  •   Home > News > International

    China is pushing couples to have more babies for the good of the country. Many young people are saying no

    After decades of forcing Chinese couples to limit themselves to just one child, Beijing has now reversed course and is urging people to have more babies. The trouble is, many young people aren't interested.

    After decades of forcing Chinese couples to limit themselves to just one child, Beijing has now reversed course and is urging people to have more babies. 

    But years after abandoning the One Child Policy, China's population is still in decline. 

    In 2014, 14.6 million babies were born in China, but last year, it was only nine million.

    Amid challenges finding work, high childcare costs and a generation of only children feeling the pressure of looking after aging parents, many young people are ambivalent about having babies, while some are electing to have no kids at all.

    "Because our job is very busy, we don't have any time to think about having children, or think about marrying," Qin Yuan-guan said while walking with her friends in central Beijing's Chaoyang Park. 

    "Young people are more focused on ourselves and we don't think about the future, we just think about what makes us happy, because if you have children it costs lots of money and lots of time.

    "I think most of our friends have the same feelings."

    Keenly aware that an aging population imperils China's future, the government has started offering a raft of incentives — as well as exerting serious social pressure — in an attempt to drive up the birth rate. 

    'My baby is an accident' 

    Yang Chunxia was almost ready to sign off on her years raising her daughter, when at the age of 44, a surprise came along.

    "My baby is an accident," she said.

    "She is a gift given to us by God, so we kept her. We love babies."

    When her first daughter was born, Ms Yang wasn't actually allowed to have any more babies, due to China's One Child policy.

    The government said that families who violated the law created a burden on society. 

    Over three and a half decades, many women had abortions — sometimes forced — and baby girls were given up at a shocking rate in a society that valued sons over daughters. 

    If a couple decided to keep their second-born child, they could also be punished with large fines. 

    But by the time Ms Yang fell pregnant with her second daughter in 2021, the country had dropped the population control measure. 

    Ms Yang's second child is now four, while her older daughter is in her early 20s and studying at university overseas.

    Why China wants more babies 

    Ms Yang is part of a growing group – officials and state media have been quick to highlight that the number of second and third children being born is increasing.

    But in reality, it was not enough to stem the population drop, caused by a wave of COVID deaths when strict lockdowns ended last year, as well as a declining birth rate. 

    For the last two years the country's population has gotten smaller, something which hadn't happened since the Great Famine six decades ago.

    President Xi Jinping has said it's critical to "actively foster a new type of marriage and childbirth culture", and that women's work relates to "family harmony, social harmony, national development and national progress"

    "Initially everyone expected that after the pandemic, China's economy would gradually improve, which would then encourage people to be more willing to have children," said Hung Ming-Te, from Taiwan's Institute for National Defence and Security Research.

    "But that hasn't happened."

    This has spurred concerns over how the country will continue the rapid economic growth, which over the past few decades was built on the labour of the huge number of working age people, and how the state will care for that now-aging population.

    It could also have flow-on effects globally.

    "Because China is the world's factory, if there are significant issues with China's economy, it's not just an internal problem for China," says Dr Hung.

    "It could also affect other countries' economies."

    But some people say they're unwilling to put the national economic interests over their own. 

    'Having a child is not that important for my life' 

    Zhao Liman was raised in Beijing, and a passion for travel took her all over the world, including to Australia where she studied for her masters.

    She's now back in Beijing running a cycling business, inspired by her childhood riding bikes around the city.

    For her, those two passions were more appealing than having a family.

    "I'm a very curious person so I always want to try different things for my life," she said. 

    "So when I was younger, I moved to [different] countries working and … want to experience different cultures.

    "If I had a child, I would have to commit myself to one place, I couldn't move around, and the children when they need to go to school, there's another 10 years of my life that I need to be devoted to them.

    "And then slowly, I've decided that probably having a child is not that important for my life."

    Ms Zhao says that isn't common among her friends, and while she has a couple who also don't have kids, most do.

    "I also have quite a few female friends who are single mothers and raise the kids themselves, and I also saw the difficulties that they experienced," she said. 

    "You probably hear that for Asian kids the parents put a lot of pressure on education, so the children spend a lot of time studying, or going to classes doing training in maths, in music, or in painting.

    "I think the challenge for the parents is that they need to keep up with that race, in children's education."

    Cash bonuses for more babies 

    Individual provinces and even companies are coming up with ways to try and encourage people to have more kids – everything from cash subsidies for having a second and third child, assistance with childcare and paying for fertility treatments like IVF. 

    In the city of Hangzhou, the government was giving new parents a one-off subsidy worth around $4,300 for having a third child in 2023 according to the local Zhejiang Daily.

    "I feel the results [of such policies] are limited," Dr Hung said. 

    "This situation of declining birth rates and an aging population is difficult to change, I can only say that the policy can delay the occurrence of this situation.

    "Whether it can truly reverse this trend is highly unlikely."

    Ms Zhao agrees that government policies will have little impact on a choice that's so personal.

    "I don't think that has much effect on individual level because [ultimately] it's still a personal choice," she said.

    "So for most women … if they want to have more children, they will have more children."

    That's certainly true for Liu Ying and Wang Qingyan.

    Their young son came along sooner than planned, and consequently Ms Liu had to stop working earlier than she'd hoped.

    But both are confident they will have more children if they can.

    "My husband and I love children, if it is possible, I would like to have a second or a third child," she said.

    They admit, however, that they are still outliers among their friends and peers.

    "The [financial, time and energy] pressures are quite big now, it is very common to only have one child," Ms Liu said.  

    "Including my friends, for them one child is enough … [so] when they hear what I think they are very surprised."


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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