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China's population

It’s time for China to tear up the rule book on family size

Two-child policy is still too restrictive to stave off demographic time bomb

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 8:33am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 October, 2017, 4:00pm

One of the big changes in China since President Xi Jinping took power five years ago is the ending of the notorious one-child policy, which was replaced by a two-child policy.

But this adjustment did not go far enough to drive the country’s fertility ratio to a healthy level – and to stave off its demographic time bomb. It’s time for Beijing to get rid of birth restrictions entirely, and to encourage Chinese to have bigger families.

According to the latest statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, there were 7.4 million births in the first five months of this year – up 7.8 per cent from a year ago. More than half of the new babies were the second children of their parents.

But China’s birth rate continues to decline. In fact, the country is still at the edge of a population crash with a fertility ratio – the average number of children born per woman – of 1.3. That ratio needs to be at 2.1 to keep the population stable over the long run.

End of China’s one child policy sees births rise to 18.46 million in 2016 ... but it’s still not enough

The two-child policy will not be enough to achieve such a ratio. Even if every family wants to have two children, the real ratio will be below 2. In the real world, a recent survey by the China Population Association found that 12.5 per cent of Chinese couples are infertile.

More importantly, as China gets richer, a growing number of women, especially those who are highly educated, will choose to stay single or childless, as they do in wealthy countries. And many Chinese couples who already have one child will not have a second one, even though they are now free to do so.

So, if China wants to prevent its population from shrinking too quickly, it must allow more families to have three children or more.

It is a matter of simple maths. Suppose, in a given area, there are 12 couples. Two have no children, and another two choose to have only one child. So to keep the total number of children at 24, how many children do the other eight couples need to have?

If six of them had three children each and two couples had two children, the target of 24 newborns would be reached – meaning the size of the new generation would be unchanged from the previous one.

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In other words, China should have far more families with three children than families with two to keep its population from declining. And for that reason, the two-child policy is utterly ineffective in addressing this challenge.

Families with three children should become the mainstream in China. In the above example of 12 couples – two with no children and two with one child – if the rest had two children, the total would be 18.

That would be a 25 per cent population decrease in one generation. In two generations, it would mean China’s population would be nearly halved.

And it could seriously undermine China’s economic development, its technological advancement, as well as its cultural inheritance.

Although there is a higher proportion of second children among the new births in China, the number of firstborns is declining.

In 2015, that number was 8.86 million – down from 9.72 million in 2014, according to family planning commission data. In 2013, it was 10.56 million.

Marriage rate down, divorce rate up as more Chinese couples say ‘I don’t’ or ‘I won’t any more’

This is only the beginning of a long-term decline. Over the next decade, the number of women at peak childbearing age will plummet by more than 30 per cent. This can already be seen in the number of marriage registrations, which fell 7.5 per cent in 2016, after a drop of 6.3 per cent in 2015 and a 3 per cent fall in 2013.

And even if Beijing relaxes the birth policy further, it won’t be enough to persuade people to have more children. Specific incentives are needed – such as financial support, adequate maternity leave and child care.

So while the two-child policy is progress, it is really just the first step. China must go further, and allow – and encourage – families to have three children or more.

The author is the chairman of online travel service provider Ctrip.com