China is facing renewed calls to lower its legal marriageable ages – the oldest in the world – after its number of marriages plunged to a new low last year. But some demographers are questioning the effectiveness of allowing people to tie the knot earlier in life, as a trend of delayed marriages is expected to continue while China becomes more urbanised and its young people shy away from the high costs of raising a family. The number of Chinese people in their first marriages fell nearly 50 per cent to 12.28 million in 2020 from a peak of 23.85 million in 2013, according to the Chinese Marriages and Families 2022 report released by YuWa Population Research on Monday, adding that it could lead to even lower birth rates in the coming years. “If estimated based on a delay of about one to three years between first marriages and births, the number of births in the next few years is likely to be much lower than last year’s 10.62 million ,” the report says. “As the number of people who are getting married shows a declining trend, it can be expected that the number of first marriages will continue to decline in the next few years.” The 10.62 million deliveries by Chinese mothers last year marked an 11.5 per cent drop from 12 million births in 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), and contributed to an overall population increase of just 480,000 in the country of 1.4126 billion people. The marriage rate also fell to a new low in 2021. The Ministry of Civil Affairs said in February that just 7.63 million marriages were registered in 2021 – the fewest since records began in 1986. The YuWa report proposed that lowering the minimum marriage ages and reducing the costs of childbirth, parenting and education could help boost marriage and birth rates. It also suggested that requirements for adoption should be relaxed, that single women’s reproductive rights should be protected, and that a feasibility study on cohabitation law in China should be conducted. China must lift all birth restrictions amid demographic crisis, delegates urge Back in the 1950s, Chinese women were able to get married at 18, and men at 20. But in 1980, China raised the minimum marriageable ages to 20 for women and 22 for men, as it was in the early years of what would be a decades-long one-child policy to curb the country’s population growth by restricting many families to a single child. The controversial policy was in effect until 2016 , when Beijing implemented its two-child policy that lasted until last year . But the minimum marriage ages have not changed. While this is not the first time China has faced calls to lower its minimum marriage ages to help boost birth rates, demographers say the trend of young people delaying marriage is unlikely to be reversed, even if both women and men are allowed to get married earlier. Professor Peng Xizhe, from the Centre for Population and Development Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said that with more Chinese people seeking college degrees every year, lowering the minimum marriageable ages could be paired with policies that encourage students to wed. But he does not think lowering the marriage age will convince that many young adults to have kids. “It isn’t as simple as lowering the minimum ages [to boost birth rates],” Peng said. “To have more children, we are asking women to get married early – this still means we still see women as baby-making machines. “I think we can discuss [lowering the marriage ages], but I believe it’s not going to be that effective.” Peng said research has shown that migrant workers also tend to get married at older ages after moving to large cities for jobs. Traditionally, rural residents are more likely to get married earlier than those from urban regions. “The flux of migrants workers into cities has also driven up marriage ages in rural areas,” Peng added. “If they move to big cities in search of work, and if they decide to go to college, their marriage plans – or when to get married – will change as well. A growing interest in delaying marriage is also a reflection of our society becoming more advanced.” As China’s births fall, so few first children is the ‘most pressing problem’ Yuan Xin, vice-president of the China Population Association and a demography professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, said that the relaxation of adoption rules and the lowering of marriage ages are both legal issues and are not directly linked to the birth rate. “The childbirth policies already far exceed people’s willingness to give birth. The three-child policy has practically no regulatory effect on the low birth rate. The leading cause of the low birth rate is determined by the [current] socioeconomic development,” Yuan said. The YuWa report came as the world’s most populous country is struggling to boost birth rates amid an ageing-population crisis and with experts predicting that China’s population faces a “ normalised phase of decline ” that could begin this year. In the past year, local governments began rolling out a series of pronatalist policies, including tax cuts, additional parental leave and subsidies. And in the latest push to incentivise couples to reproduce, the State Council announced on Monday that expenses for children under the age of three are now eligible for tax deductions. And caretakers are eligible to claim a tax deduction of 1,000 yuan (US$157) a month, per child, starting this year.