Saturday, Jul 22, 2017, 8:55 AM CST – China

Editorial

China needs a comprehensive approach to addressing demographic challenges

The government should consider completely liberalizing the family planning policy to allow people, married or unmarried, to decide how many children they want to have.

On January 1, China officially scrapped its Family Planning Policy, allowing all married couples to have two children. The landmark change came as a response to looming demographic challenges as China’s population of 1.37 billion rapidly ages, placing additional pressure on a burdened social security system and the country’s ability to maintain economic vitality.

By adopting a “two-child policy,” the National Health and Family Planning Commission predicted that around three million extra babies could be born every year for the next five years. However, experts believe that adopting a two-child policy without additional reforms will do little to address China’s population problems.

China’s economic development in the past three decades, which has dramatically improved living standards while significantly increasing the cost of raising a child, has transformed a traditional culture that once favored large families. The generation that has just reached childbearing age is made up of only children, meaning couples are expected to care for up to four elderly people – both sets of grandparents – when the latter retire, placing an additional financial burden on families that might already struggle to raise one child, a problem exacerbated by an inadequate social security system.

Related surveys show that less than 30 percent of couples of childbearing age are interested in having two children. Analysts project that China’s birth rate may remain at a low 1.5 live births per woman, even after the implementation of the two-child policy.

To effectively tackle its demographic challenges, China needs a more drastic and more comprehensive approach. Firstly, the government should consider completely liberalizing the family planning policy to allow people, married or unmarried, to decide how many children they want to have. A major reason behind China’s declining birth rate is a declining marriage rate. As only married couples are legally allowed to have children, the rise in China’s unmarried adult population means that many are deprived of their rights to become parents. Fully liberalizing family planning policies will achieve the dual objective of boosting birth rates and improving human rights protections.

Secondly, the government should endeavor to provide adequate and affordable childcare to all its citizens. Currently, publicly funded childcare services are only available in urban areas. As these services are limited and migrant workers are often ineligible for them, the system not only discourages people from having more children, but has also created a variety of social problems, such as the phenomenon of “left-behind children” who are effectively abandoned in rural areas by their migrant parents. By increasing the quality and availability of public childcare, the government could boost the birth rate and improve the general wellbeing of the next generation.

Thirdly, to address economic concerns regarding the cost of raising a child, particularly in cities, the government should initiate policy reforms in various fields to provide economic support to families with more children. For example, the number of children should be taken into consideration as part of general taxation policies. The government should also step up its efforts to protect women’s rights in China’s male-dominated workplace, as women who are pregnant often risk losing their jobs.

If the government fails to take swift action, Chinese society may eventually follow the development pattern of other Asian economies, such as Singapore, Japan and South Korea, where societies with far higher average incomes than those in China are increasingly struggling to provide adequately for their aging populations. 

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