China is concerned about population growth and the ageing workforce. But women say there must be major social and economic change rather than policy tweaks to address the demographic problem. This is part of a series of stories on women’s issues in China and Asia to coincide with International Women’s Day. At a time when China needs to get its population growing , China’s women have other priorities. Among those priorities is building a career and that leads to a delay in marriage and childbirth, or forgoing having a family altogether. And while Beijing uses a heavy hand to curb social activism, it has not slowed a growing feminist movement, with women demanding what women elsewhere want: equality in the workplace and in the household. Given China faces a population time bomb , with plummeting birth rates and a rapidly ageing workforce, President Xi Jinping and the core leadership – all men – need to come up with effective policies as they meet in Beijing for the annual legislative sessions . The political gatherings coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8 which has “Choose to Challenge” as its 2021 slogan. A challenge is certainly what Beijing’s leadership faces as some studies suggest the worst is yet to come on the population front. Helena Lu, a 26-year-old Beijing native who majored in development studies at universities in China, Hong Kong and Europe, said her attitudes shifted against marriage and childbirth as she grew up and entered the workplace. “I’m worried about how having children would impact my career. This kind of problem only happens to women, especially in China where childcare overwhelmingly falls on women,” Lu said. “Some of the root causes to China’s population structure challenge are with the treatment of women, children and the lack of equality in society. The government needs to start with tackling these issues.” Baby deficit At the National People’s Congress on Friday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said China would gradually raise the retirement age during the 14th five-year plan period (2021-2025) and try to achieve an “appropriate fertility rate”. Preliminary 2020 birth rates for some Chinese provinces and cities came out in February and showed an alarming drop in the number of newborns, with one city reporting a 30 per cent plunge from the year before, local media reported. This followed the birth rate in 2019 that was the lowest since 1949, at 10.48 births per 1,000 people, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Key issues facing Chinese and Asian women in 2021 While the final numbers for 2020 are expected in April, demographers have said further declines are likely because of the pandemic. This outlook is backed by a drop in the number of marriages, while divorces are increasing. China reported 18.94 million people tying the knot in 2019, the lowest in 12 years. Those getting married for the first time dropped 41 per cent to 13.9 million in 2019 from 23.8 million in 2013, according to official statistics. The country’s population is expected to peak in 2029 at around 1.44 billion and could decline to about 732 million by 2100, according to forecasts by demographers in China and overseas. China’s population is ageing much faster than other low- and middle countries, with citizens aged 65 and over expected to reach 300 million in five years from 176 million in 2019. At the same time the labour force population of people aged between 16-59, has fallen for eight straight years, according to official data. This all adds up to higher pension and health care costs, with a drop in economic vitality – not the elements for social and political stability desired by Beijing. Mum’s work Sun Li, who runs a tea shop in Taian in the eastern province of Shandong, said she left Beijing because of housing costs and lack of access to schools for her son, now 12. Her husband stayed behind. “The financial burdens are less for us in Taian. We can afford a flat and car here,” Sun said. Sun, 35, and her husband wavered about having a second child, but were eventually persuaded by their parents, she said. Their daughter is almost two years old and Sun gets childcare help from her mother and in-laws. “It’s very tiring taking care of two kids, especially with my daughter being less than two years old. During the day I have to work and at night I come home and look after them,” she said, adding she has no regrets but most of her friends would not consider having a second child. Chen Yaya, a gender equality researcher at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said men in China did not do enough to help with childcare as more women entered the workforce. But that was only part of the problem. “Changing the opinions of fathers alone would not be enough to encourage more of them to share childcare in the current societal conditions. The workplace culture will also have to change,” Chen said. Japan and South Korea face similar problems of population decline and have introduced incentives to try to tackle it, such as providing paid parental leave for fathers. Japan offers the longest paid leave for fathers – up to a year – according to the United Nations. Men in China can take between seven and 25 days of paternity leave, according to local labour laws. Boy problem While Japan, South Korea, and China all have patriarchal cultures and are going through similar demographic shifts, China also has a severe gender imbalance and a less developed economy. Three decades of government-mandated family planning only allowed one child for most urban families which, combined with a cultural preference for boys, especially in rural areas, led to men in China outnumbering women by more than 30 million in 2019, according to the statistics bureau. The age groups with the most unbalanced gender ratios are between 10 and 19 years old, meaning the worst declines in marriage and birth rates are still to come, according to a report by state-backed tabloid Global Times. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences cites the fall in the number of women of childbearing age as one of the main reasons for the slump in the birth rate. The number of childbearing women hit a peak in 2011 and has been falling since, according to official data. Authorities seemed stumped over how to deal with this, while think tanks and researchers have put forward some outlandish proposals. Wu Xiuming, from the Think Tank Development Association in central Shanxi province, said one solution was to pair up single men from rural areas with single women in cities , according to a report by state news agency Xinhua. The proposal was widely panned in China, while Chen from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences pointed out that most men from the countryside had already left to work in cities, where they faced discrimination and difficulty finding a partner. Men in suits Helena Lu in Beijing said that while she did not have the answer to China’s demographic woes, it might help to have some women in top leadership positions to broaden the debate. China’s Politburo Standing Committee, the top political body, has never had a female member. It comprises Xi Jinping and six other men. “If you have a woman leader, it will obviously be beneficial for other women, at least there will be less discrimination,” Lu said, adding it was rare to see women in leadership positions in general. Leta Hong Fincher, the author of two books on women and feminism in China, also has views on the problems. “The patriarchy is at the very core of China’s authoritarian system. Propaganda in Xi’s era has portrayed the kind of family he believes is conducive to the nation’s harmony: one based on marriage between a man and a woman, where the woman plays a subservient role,” Hong Fincher said. Unsung heroes: 5 Asian women transcending gender roles In a 2018 speech, Xi said gender equality should be promoted and women’s rights protected but emphasised the “unique function” that women played in the society and the family. Women should take up the responsibility for rearing a healthy future generation and caring for the elderly, he said. Beijing has tinkered with various policies to encourage the majority Han Chinese women to get married early and have children, especially those who are well educated. One effort included shaming older single women, while another was removing the one-child policy, but most failed, said Hong Fincher. “The government realises that they have to try other ways,” she said.