China boosts childcare and maternal health services in bid to lift birth rate

  • Beijing is encouraging people to have more children as it grapples with the challenges of a rapidly greying population
  • China Family Planning Association will provide support including an online health check platform and childbirth advice centres
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:55pm

Beijing has gone from forced abortions and heavy fines during its notorious one-child policy to providing childcare services and encouraging people to have more children, as it grapples with a rapidly ageing population and falling birth rate.

In the latest move, the China Family Planning Association, which is overseen by the State Council, will “focus on maternity care and family health services” next year, according to a statement released after a meeting on Thursday.

That will include providing childcare and early development services for children under three, a new online platform for marriage and maternity health checks and a network of childbirth advice centres, Wang Peian, deputy director of the association, told Beijing news site Jiemian.

President Xi Jinping has been gradually relaxing China’s population controls since he came to power in 2012. The one-child policy, which was introduced in 1979 to control population growth, was relaxed in late 2013, with couples allowed to have a second child if either parent was an only child. Two years later, the one-child policy ended and all couples were allowed to have two children.

As the policy has shifted, local governments and organisations have started exploring ways to encourage people to have more children, including giving housing subsidies to families who have a second child, introducing more flexible working hours and longer maternity leave.

Local family planning associations have also been funding projects ranging from early development programmes in eastern Fujian province to children’s community centres in Beijing.

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The ruling Communist Party’s propaganda has also switched gears in line with the policy change. Party mouthpiece People’s Daily in September ran an editorial headlined “Having children is a personal as well as national affair”, calling for more support and benefits for families and warning that a rapid decline or rise in the population could lead to an imbalance that would affect economic and social stability.

But efforts to encourage people to have more children do not appear to be working. The latest figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show there were 17.5 million births in China last year – 880,000 fewer than in 2016.

Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a long-time critic of China’s birth policy, said the problem was that the country’s rigid population controls had shaped the Chinese mindset.

“In China, the average ideal number of children to have and the birth rate for firstborns are both among the lowest in the world, and all the country’s social and economic models revolve around having one child,” said Yi, who has long called for population controls to be dropped.

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Those policies have not only contributed to the greying society but also to a heavy gender imbalance. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report released this week, China’s progress towards gender equality has slowed this year and it still has the world’s most skewed sex ratio at birth – 0.94 female to one male.