China’s fertility rate has sunk to 1.18 children per woman and its population has begun to decline. Deaths outnumbered births for the first time in decades. The government of Xi Jinping has finally grasped that it is facing a slow-motion crisis. Unless more children a born, there will be fewer workers and more elderly. Economic stagnation or worse is on the horizon. Millions of Chinese face the prospect of getting old before they get rich.
While experts say it would be nearly impossible for China’s population to start growing again, the country could keep its birthrate steady. Making assisted reproductive technologies accessible to more people would help, just as it has helped in wealthier countries like Denmark, said Ayo Wahlberg, an anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen.
China recently promised to build at least one facility offering I.V.F. for every 2.3 million to three million people by 2025. It currently has 539 medical institutions and 27 sperm banks that have been approved to carry out assisted reproductive technology. Each year these facilities provide more than a million cycles of I.V.F. and other assisted fertility services. Around 300,000 babies are conceived.
Experts say these efforts are meaningful ways to help couples who want to have children. If China can scale up the services in an affordable way, it could even be a model for other countries that are facing similar challenges with infertility. But whether it will do much to change China’s demographic trajectory is another question.
The underlying issue is not economic, but cultural. “The big picture is that people are less willing to have children,” Lin Haiwei, the chief executive at Beijing Perfect Family Hospital, told the Times.
This is the single biggest challenge facing China as it tries to reverse its falling birthrate. Young people complain about the financial burden of having children and their own economic uncertainty, and push back on traditional ideas about the woman’s role as a caretaker at home. Many have expressed a desire to focus on their careers, while others have embraced a lifestyle known as “double income, no kids.”
But Mr Lin is not optimistic about the future of his industry. “It is certainly hard to expect much growth in our industry when the overall fertility rate and the willingness to have children are shrinking,” he said.
The province of Sichuan announced yesterday that it will permit unlimited births and also allow unmarried couples and singles to register their children freely. The government said that these measures “shift the focus of childbearing registration to childbearing desire and childbearing results”. Sichuan has about 80 million people.