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Birth rate blues

The global population may have hit seven billion, but three decades of family-planning measures have curbed Chinese fertility – and demographers are beginning to worry. Wang Ling reports.

Chinese demographers are locked in a fierce debate about the country’s low birth rate and how it should influence population policy. The arguments focus on one crucial figure: the total fertility rate, or TFR, which refers to the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime. That figure has a direct impact on family planning policy, and so getting it right is important.

According to a report by National Population Strategy Research, China’s TFR needs to stay around 1.8 for the next 30 years in order to maintain “coordinated development” of population, economy and society.

But what is China’s TFR now? Available data makes it difficult to determine. There is no doubt that the number is lower than the population replacement rate of 2.1, but how much lower depends on who you talk to: some experts say 1.8, others 1.7 or 1.65, or even 1.5 and lower. There are still major disagreements. Only one thing is certain: China has a low birth rate.

Those who put the country’s TFR at around 1.8 hold that the current family-planning policy is still appropriate. According to a Xinhua report published the day the official global population reached seven billion, Zhai Zhenwu, director of Renmin University’s School of Sociology and Population, backs this view. He said the policy would be adjusted as conditions change.

But other demographers contest the 1.8 figure. A source told China Business News that during a recent briefing for top officials, one population expert said TFR was 1.65. And others argue that data from China’s 2010 census indicate the figure is lower still.

Li Jianxin, a sociology professor at Peking University crunched the census data and came up with a striking conclusion: that China’s TFR is somewhere between 1.4 and 1.5. That’s even lower than the United Nations standard for a low birth rate of 1.5.  

On May 3 this year, the UN published the 2010 issue of its World Population Prospects report, which put China’s TFR at 1.7 for the years from 2000 to 2005, and at 1.64 for 2005 to 2010.

Guo Zhigang is a professor at Peking University’s Centre for Sociological Research and Development Studies. He pointed out that, according to the population strategy in China’s 11th Five Year Plan, population should have reached 1.36 billion in 2010 – based on a TFR of 1.8 and annual average increase of 10 million people. But, in fact, census data indicates the population was 1.34 billion that year, meaning annual growth of only six million people, four million less each year than planned.

“That’s no minor slip, it’s a mistake. That gap between targets and census data proves that China’s TFR has been seriously overestimated,” Guo said. He added that current birth rates aren’t just low – they’re extremely low. TFR cannot be the 1.8 the authorities insist on, he said. It is plainly lower, below even 1.5. 

One demographer who did not want to be named said the 1.8 figure has never been supported by census data – on the contrary, figures from the National Bureau of Statistics often put China’s TFR at much lower than 1.8.

Gu Baochang, a professor at Renmin University’s Centre for Population and Development Studies, told China Business News that, while many countries now have low birth rates, none have seen such a sharp drop as China. This, he said, will bring the country grave challenges.

Gu and Chinese Academy of Social Sciences demographer Guo Zhenzhen carried out research with results that even they found surprising: in provinces including Hubei and Jiangsu, couples entitled to have a second child were opting not to. This observation flies in the face of the traditional view of demographers – namely, that a relaxation of family planning rules would immediately result in more births.

A survey conducted by Ma Xiaohong from the Beijing Population Institute and colleagues further indicates that in neither cities nor rural areas is there much desire to have more children. Even those entitled under family planning policies to have a second child only do so in about 30% of cases.

Gu Baochang’s explanation is that urbanisation and shifting views on marriage and parenthood have led people to accept and internalise low birth rates. Once birth rates fall, it is extremely difficult to raise them again. As one demographer said, it’s harder to get the birth rate up than it is to get it down.

There are risks associated with continued low birth rates and a lack of awareness of this trend. One is that the extent to which a population is ageing may be underestimated. The 2010 census puts 13.26% of China’s population over the age of 60. But with a TFR of 1.8, this should have been 12.42%, a difference of almost one percentage point. The population over 65 was 8.87%; with a TFR of 1.8, this should have been 8.18%. The facts are clear, said Guo Zhigang: even today the ageing trend in China’s population is understated, and the gap will only widen as calculations extrapolate further into the future.

The fear is that, as a result, the policy response will be inadequate. Gu Baochang argues that China is striving to get an accurate view of the problem, but time will show we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. The challenges of an ageing population are enormous. When this is combined with a “baby bust”, the future becomes even more uncertain. 

According to the 2010 census, 16.6% of China’s population is under the age of 14. That’s 6.29 percentage points lower than in 2000. According to demographers, when 15% to 18% of a population is under 14, that counts as a severe lack of children. When the figure falls below 15%, the shortage is classed as extreme.

Rapid ageing, a lack of children and a sustained low birth rate herald changes in the structure of China’s population, and the real dangers will emerge further down the line. Guo Zhigang believes the existing population structure will mean a rapidly and severely ageing population in the first half of this century, and then a sharp drop in population in the second half.

Many demographers, both inside and outside of China, agree: getting the TFR wrong will result in misjudgements about ageing and labour supply and, ultimately, a family planning policy that is out of step with reality and storing up problems for the future. A report in British magazine The Economist asserts that China will face major population challenges in the future, while India and the Middle East will reap the benefits of their moderate birth rates.

What worries Gu Baochang is that, if low birth rates aren’t acknowledged, there is no sense of alarm about future population risks. “Population issues need to be dealt with in advance – by the time you’re actually experiencing negative growth, there’s nothing you can do.”

Wang Ling is a reporter at
China Business News, where this article was first published.

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