China birth rate falls despite policy shift to two children

Chinese couples choosing to stick with having only one child due to rising costs

When Xu Yan was deciding on whether to take advantage of the loosening of China’s one-child policy and have another baby, financial realities meant she and her husband ultimately decided against it.

“I basically don’t have the money for a second child,” says Xu (35), who works at a food company in Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

The detested policy restricting families to one child was introduced in 1979, with heavy fines for anyone breaking the rules and in some cases forced abortions. In 2015, amid concerns about an ageing population and shrinking workforce, the rules were relaxed and a two-child policy was introduced.

The liberalisation was welcomed, and in 2016 the number of births rose nearly 8 per cent, and nearly half of the babies born were to couples who already had a child.


But fresh data shows the birth rate in China is continuing to fall. There were 17.2 million births last year, down from 17.9 million in 2016, according to the country's National Bureau of Statistics.

In 2017, the number of second children increased by 1.62 million, but the number of first births dropped 2.49 million for an overall decline. This is partly because the number of women in their 20s is falling, and also people are marrying later.

Middle class

A further factor in the declining birth rate is that, with an expanding middle class, raising a child in China is becoming more costly.

“If you want to provide the child with a better education, it’s very expensive. Also a lot of lot of families can’t afford a bigger apartment, so two children have to share a room and if one gets sick, the other will be sick as well,” says Xu.

“In my family, all the extra classes for my son cost more than 1,000 yuan (€127) a month. If my son doesn’t take any extra classes, he will be left behind.”

With almost 1.4 billion people, China is the world’s most populous country and the population is expected to peak at 1.45 billion in 2029. But China is ageing rapidly – it has 143 million people older than 65.

“All the people around me just want one kid,” says Julia Zhou, a yoga teacher from Guangxi province in southern China.

While the desire to have bigger families in rural areas and among ethnic minorities – many of whom were exempted from the one-child policy – remains strong, this is not the case in cities.

A report by the Shanghai Women’s Federation shows over half of households with one child do not want a second, and nearly 36 per cent cite cost as the reason.

There have been calls for the government to help stimulate people’s desire to have children.

"Women's 'fertility desire' has drastically changed from being eager to give birth to 'don't want to' or 'can't afford to' give birth," Mu Guangzong, a professor at the population research institute of Peking University, wrote in the China Daily.

Demographic development

“To cope with the ageing population, China needs to take measures to create favourable conditions for young couples, so that they can have two children and thus help sustain the country’s demographic and social development,” she said.

Some families have embraced the new freedom. Niu Xiaoqing (33) had her own business in Suifenhe, Heilongjiang province, but has become a homemaker since the birth of her daughter.

“I missed out on spending time with my son when he was young . . . So I decided to have a second child,” she said.

The trend towards falling birth rates is evident in the wider region. World Bank data shows that, in 2015, Hong Kong's total fertility rate was the lowest in the world at 1.19 – the replacement rate in developed countries is 2.1. Singapore and South Korea were also about 1.2. Ireland's is about 1.9.

While the broader trend is for fewer children, it may be that the two-child policy does lead to a mild increase in the birth rate in the shorter term.

Some analysts believe sharp fluctuations over the past three years were partly due to parents adjusting their family plans around 2015, a sheep year in the Chinese lunar year calendar, considered an unlucky year to give birth. The lunar Year of the Dog, which starts on February 15th, is considered a more auspicious time to have children.