Three Children, Same Outcome: What China Needs to Do to Fix Its Demographic Conundrum

Chinese Children and snowman
Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas (via Wikimedia Commons)

To smooth out what could prove to be a drastic demographic decline, the Chinese government announced their newly minted three-child policy during the May 31 politburo meeting. With census data reflecting an aging population and a slowing birth rate, the three child policy frees Chinese families of any legal ramifications for having a third child.

Available data spells out a number of trends which indicate an unavoidable population contraction, regardless of near term policy implementation. Based on the census data in 2020, the Chinese median age stands at a slightly older 38.4 years old compared to the 38.1 median age in the United States. In some of China’s more urbanized areas, such as Northeastern China and Shanghai, the percentage for children between 0 and 15 years of age stands below 15 percent and 9 percent respectively. In Shenzhen, one of the most expensive cities in China, 10 percent of families chose not to have children. On a national level, the size of families is shrinking quickly with less than three people on average in a nuclear Chinese family. These numbers point towards the bleak reality that China will likely face population decline in the next five years. However, despite a declining population growth rate and a quickly aging population, the three-child policy may help slow the aging population in the short run.

Yet the three-child policy cannot provide the sustainable growth necessary for China to consistently maintain its population. Simply allowing people to have more children will neither sustain nor even raise the birth rate in the long run. Census data indicates that the 2016 two-child policy did not create as big of a baby boom as the government was expecting. In the first year of the two-child policy, the total number of births in China rose to 17.86 million, a record high since 2000. However, the total number of births dropped to 17.2 million the following year, and then returned to normalcy in 2019 with 14.65 million. 2020 census data indicates that there were 12 million births in China, with the fertility rate dropping to 1.3. This suggests that the 2016 two-child policy has not and will not lead to long term increases in China’s birth rate.

The two-child and three-child policies don’t account for the other demographic shifts that are contributing to the declining birth rate. The crude marriage rate has dropped by a third within six years from 2013 to 2019, leaving more people than ever before who are single in China. Fewer people are getting married while more people are divorcing as the total divorce rose by 18.7 percent. When accounting for Chinese social norms regarding childbirth, a lower marriage rate will trigger a lower birth rate, as children born out of wedlock make up only 10 percent of all births. These numbers point to the unfortunate fact that allowing a third child may not account for the impact of changing marriage and divorce rates amongst the adult population.

Moreover, even amongst the married population there is growing apprehension to having additional children or to having children at all. The most recent example of this trend is from a Xinhua News Agency’s Weibo poll on whether Chinese respondents wanted a third child. The overwhelming majority of respondents chose “I absolutely do not want to consider it.” Despite any possible statistical inaccuracies with the poll, it still reflects the extremely low willingness to have children, especially among the younger generations. This hesitancy is the result of the increasing economic and social costs to balancing a household budget while raising a child.

To raise the fertility rate, Beijing must find a way to address the barriers facing the average Chinese when choosing to have children: family health, education, and the job market. The natural solution for the stabilization of the Chinese birth rate is to address the potential burdens facing Chinese families on all fronts, from marriage to education. The desire to not have children in China is the product of a mixture of reasons which cannot be encompassed by a one-dimensional policy. The two most pressing issues which must be addressed are the high costs of child rearing and women’s labor rights during and after pregnancy.

For the majority of Chinese citizens, the cost of raising a single child, let alone multiple, is a difficult proposition to stomach while trying to balance a household budget. A recent poll resulted in roughly 75 percent of the participants indicating that the rising costs of child care have stopped them from having more children. With the sky-rocketing prices of both real estate and medical services in China as it tries to avoid the middle income trap, the financial resources of married couples are stretched thin to cover the costs of childcare. From 1995 to 2018, the average Chinese citizen’s expenditure on medical services increased by 27 times. The fact that the mortgage-to-income ratio has risen by almost three times is testament to the fundamental financial hurdles facing would-be parents.

In addition to the increasing costs of healthcare and real estate, a confluence of factors have also driven up the cost of education in China. As competition between students in Chinese education has become fiercer, the price tag for a child’s education has become unbearable for many. To make matters worse, there is a shortage of available spots for students in public education in China, especially in early daycare and kindergarten.

As prices rise, the coinciding factors of a high female workforce participation rate in China, with insufficient workplace protections for women wanting children, drags the birth rate down even further. China has one of the highest female workforce participation rates, with 60 percent of women in the workforce, including a significant portion of which have completed post-secondary education. However, hiring practices often force women to choose between their job or having children. There are an unfortunate number of cases of women facing employment discrimination before and during pregnancy over the past few decades. The recent Pop Mart scandal, in which the growing Chinese toy company inquired its female job applicants of their fertility intentions, underscores employers’ attitudes towards pregnancy amongst their employees. Nonetheless, with more women pursuing a career rather than a family, the Chinese government must seek to firmly establish women’s labor rights so as to sustain the willingness of female workers to have children and protect them from potential reprisal.

Decreasing fertility rates are a predictable pattern among countries experiencing rapid economic growth. We have in fact witnessed this trend in China before during birth rate declines in the urban Chinese population in the 1960s and dips in the rural Chinese fertility rate in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the following decades may prove to be different as Chinese economic growth begins to plateau after several extraordinary decades of growth. The third-child policy may briefly hold over the Chinese population in the short run, but Beijing has to find its way to address China’s declining birth rate from multiple policy angles. The distinct unwillingness of potential Chinese parents to have children in the face of climbing prices and inadequate women’s working rights will remain whether or not couples desire to have a third, let alone a third child.

Haoyu “Henry” Huang serves as the Research and Communications Assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center in KIMEP University in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs in May 2020. He is originally from China and currently based in Almaty, Kazakhstan.  

Carl Liles is a Research and Communications Assistant at the DPRK Strategic Research Center in KIMEP University. After earning a degree from the Frank Batten School at the University of Virginia in Leadership and Public Policy with a double major in Russian and Eastern European Studies, Carl worked for several years in Kyrgyzstan before relocating to Almaty, Kazakhstan.