The central authorities on Tuesday introduced a raft of policies, the most comprehensive at the national level, to encourage couples to have more children. The measures include the provision of better maternal care and childcare services, improved maternity and parental leave policies, as well as preferential policies on housing and taxation, according to policy guidelines released by the National Health Commission in collaboration with 16 other government departments.
Some local governments have previously introduced measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, and enhanced medical insurance for the same purpose. But the latest guidelines issued by the central government are more comprehensive in terms of the areas covered and how effectively they can be implemented to achieve the desired results. For example, the concept of fostering “fertility-friendly workplaces” has been put forward for the first time. All this reflects the central government’s strong resolve to promote the “balanced long-term development of the population”.
Which is not surprising given the serious population challenges the country is facing. China’s fertility rate of 1.16 in 2021, a record low, was well below the notional 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. Demographers expect China’s new births will fall to a record low this year, dropping below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million babies — a figure that was already 11.5 percent lower than in 2020.
Compounding the challenge of the population decline, which is expected to start as early as 2025, is the fast aging of the population. People aged 60 or above already account for 18.7 percent of China’s total population. This poses a great challenge to the country’s future economic development, as it will reduce the supply of labor, increase the care burden on families and exert increasing pressure on public services in the years to come.
To reverse the trend, China has already eased its family-planning policy in recent years, allowing all couples to have two children in 2016 and relaxing it even further in 2021 to allow all couples to have three children should they wish to do so.
The experiences of industrialized countries indicate that people tend to have fewer children as they get wealthier. The uncertainties stemming from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been ongoing for nearly three years, have also made many couples hesitant to have more children.
To encourage couples to have more children, policymakers must make sure that more people can feel a sense of gain from the people-oriented policies as they try to achieve an improved population structure and invigorate the economy.
Editorial, China Daily