China's population

Patriotism may hold key to China births challenge

Despite the switch to a two-child policy, ageing not overpopulation is the biggest problem facing the country today and a solution must be found

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 6:23am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 June, 2018, 6:23am

The increase in births attributed to the scrapping of China’s one-child policy in favour of two children has quickly lost momentum, prompting concerns among policymakers about the social and economic consequences for future generations of a permanently depressed birth rate.

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, births fell by 3.5 per cent to 17.2 million nationwide last year, erasing almost half the rise.

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Officials have said the one-child policy, introduced 40-odd years ago to rein in population growth, prevented 400 million births, albeit at the cost of criticism of human rights abuses such as forced abortion and sterilisation, and a gender imbalance estimated at 30 million males.

It was linked to the demographic dividend of a bulge in the workforce relative to population growth in the following decades that was fundamental to the country’s economic rise.

China has now exhausted this dividend. As a result, in less than three years since the switch to a two-child policy to counter an ageing population, there is another big debate about state birth control amid a greying society.

There were concerns that a resurgence in population growth following the relaxation of the one-child policy would put pressure on resources in the future. However, the biggest issue remains ageing, not overpopulation.

The debate includes an argument that concerns about a shrinking labour force do not take into account the role of artificial intelligence and industrial robots, and the counter argument that in many sectors they will not replace humans.

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The birth rate is falling among the younger generation, in line with global trends, amid increasing affluence and rising infertility.

As a result, more people are aware of the need to tackle a shrinking labour force and ageing society. Other societies confronting similar problems are trying to stem infertility with incentives such as improving the social safety net, subsidising education and improving gender equity.

Far from there being a need any longer to artificially restrict population growth, experts put a lighter complexion on the issue by suggesting that in future officials may appeal to patriotism with an “at least one child” policy.