China to relax policy on birth but wary of risks

Published on May 18, 2021 07:47 AM IST

Expectations for birth policy reforms are rising after the 2020 census last week showed China’s population grew at its slowest in the last decade since the 1950s as births declined and ageing accelerated.

China introduced a controversial “one-child policy” in the late 1970s but relaxed restrictions in 2016 to allow all couples to have two children as it tried to rebalance its rapidly-ageing population.(AP)
China introduced a controversial “one-child policy” in the late 1970s but relaxed restrictions in 2016 to allow all couples to have two children as it tried to rebalance its rapidly-ageing population.(AP)
Reuters | , Beijing

China will tread carefully in relaxing its birth policies for fear of harming social stability, even as the latest census highlights the urgency to address the country’s declining birth trends and ageing population, policy sources said.

Expectations for birth policy reforms are rising after the 2020 census last week showed China’s population grew at its slowest in the last decade since the 1950s as births declined and ageing accelerated.

A fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman in 2020, on par with ageing societies like Japan and Italy, underscores the risk for China: the world’s second-biggest economy may already be in irreversible population decline without having first accumulated the household wealth of G7 nations.

Top leaders are working out a broader plan to cope with demographic challenges, the sources said, including more effective ways to encourage childbearing by easing financial burdens on couples, rather than simply removing birth curbs. Raising the retirement age, which Beijing said will be done gradually, will help slow a decline in the workforce and eventually ease pressures on the under-funded pension system, they said.

China introduced a controversial “one-child policy” in the late 1970s but relaxed restrictions in 2016 to allow all couples to have two children as it tried to rebalance its rapidly-ageing population. The change, however, failed to halt declining births.

The sources said they expect Beijing to encourage more childbearing under the current policy framework, before fully lifting birth restrictions over the next 3-5 years.

Removing birth restrictions could have unintended consequences: a limited impact on city dwellers, who are reluctant to have more children due to high costs, while rural families could expand faster, adding to poverty and employment pressures, the sources, who are involved in policy discussions but not the final decision-making process, said.

China aims to create at least 10 million new urban jobs a year, even as the working age population shrinks.

Liu Huan, an adviser to the Chinese cabinet, said China’s main population challenge is not size but ageing, which will put heavy pressure on government finances. “It’s hard to resolve the birth problem given high housing, medical and education costs,” he said. “So we should have comprehensive policies.”

Calls for change

In April, The People’s Bank of China said in a working paper that China should “fully liberalise and vigorously encourage childbirth” to offset the economic impact, saying China should draw lessons from Japan’s “lost 20 years”.

The proportion of people aged 65 and above hit 13.5% in 2020, up from 8.87% in 2010.

But changes to the present policy will likely be gradual.

Talent divided

Deepening rivalry with the US has raised the urgency for China to build a more innovation-driven economy. Under President Xi Jinping’s “dual circulation” strategy, China aims to ease dependence on overseas markets and technology.

“We should make a transition from population dividend to talent dividend,” the first policy source said.

The census showed improved education over the last decade. The proportion of people with university education rose to 15.5% from 8.9%, and average years of schooling for people aged 15 or above edged up to 9.9 years from 9.1 years.

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