‘Serious hurdles’ to motherhood worsen demographic crisis in China

Serious health and professional hurdles are deterring Chinese women from having babies, worsening China’s demographic crisis, according to research published this month by authorities in the central province of Hunan.

The Hunan People’s Congress warned that most cities in the province had failed to urgently address their declining birth rates, with a survey finding that only four out of 14 had rolled out detailed plans to boost births by the end of April – against a previous deadline of end-2022.

An inspection team sent out earlier this year to uncover the issues faced by government agencies, childcare facilities, as well as families, found career pressure and infertility, as well as high costs, were the main barriers for women.

“Many female workers worry they would be marginalised if they get pregnant, so they have no choice but to delay or opt out of childbearing,” the report said.

Infertility is another significant challenge, according to the report. In 2022, 75 per cent of pregnancies in the provincial capital Changsha’s most populated district were high-risk, up from 63.5 per cent in 2021 and 43.8 per cent in 2016, it said.

In 2020, China’s most recent national reproductive health survey found the infertility rate had risen from 12 per cent in 2007 to 18 per cent, meaning that one in every 5.6 couples of childbearing age faced difficulties in conceiving.


Inside China’s Demographic Revolution

Inside China’s Demographic Revolution

The results of the survey, led by leading reproductive specialist Qiao Jie, president of Peking University Third Hospital, were published in The Lancet medical journal in 2021.

Hidden workplace discrimination against married women of childbearing age is common in China. In an effort to encourage mothers to return to work, a city in the eastern province of Anhui is offering incentives and retraining opportunities.

Huangshan city officials said earlier this week that women whose employment is interrupted by childbirth are eligible for a subsidy of between 500 and 2,400 yuan (US$70-330) if they attend re-employment training.

During the training, which is being offered by the public services department, they will also receive a daily living allowance of 50 yuan (US$7).

After China recorded 9.56 million births last year – its lowest total in modern history and the first time the figure dipped below 10 million – some demographers predicted the number could drop to fewer than eight million this year, further clouding the gloomy demographic outlook.

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The number of Chinese newborns has fallen by around 40 per cent in the past five years, while concerns about China’s demographic crisis reached new heights when it was revealed the country’s population shrank by 850,000 people in 2022 –the first such fall since 1961.

In April, the UN announced that India had overtaken China as the world’s most populous country.

Population decline in the world’s second-largest economy, alongside the deepening of an ageing society, could have profound economic consequences, including reduced demand in housing and the consumer market, as well as a shrinking labour pool and pension challenges.

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Despite a slew of pronatalist incentives and slogans being rolled out across the country to encourage births, demographic experts have conceded that immediate effects are unlikely, suggesting China should accept and adapt to the new norm.

According to the Hunan report, many officials believe no results or achievements in family planning can be seen in the short-term, leading to a lack of motivation on the issue.

The report also found that governments in some big cities have slacked off on the effort, because they have no trouble attracting people to live there.

The report also identified a shortage of staffing and funding in departments dedicated to family planning issues.


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