Illustration: Liu Rui (Photo: Global Times)
In this year's institutional reform of China, the National Health and Family Planning Commission was replaced by the National Health Commission. This is the first time that no department under the State Council is named after family planning since 1981 when the National Family Planning Commission was set up. It suggests that the era of China's family planning, which aimed at controlling the population, is coming to an end.
Although the Chinese government has not scrapped all limits on the number of children a family can have, it is certain that the right to have children will move to families from the government. China's birth rate will mainly depend on the willingness of people to have more kids.
However, there are concerns that young people are not that interested in having babies despite the liberal policy. China announced a partial policy relaxation that allowed couples to have two children if one parent is an only child in 2013 and let all couples have two children in 2016. But the policy has not proved very effective. There were over 17 million births in 2017, 3 million less than the floor level of 20 million which was anticipated.
People also noticed that in 2017 the number of first babies has been 1.2 million less than that in 2016, showing that many young Chinese are even willing to have no children at all.
Less inclination to have children is common in developed countries which have gone through industrialization and urbanization. It is strongly related to the improvement of economy, social security system, pension and the change in ideas about life. In some countries, it also depends on the high cost of raising a child and the inability of women to find work-life balance.
Hence, it is not unusual that the propensity to have babies in China is declining. It can be explained in terms of high housing cost, difficult access to schools and massive expenses on education.
Is it really a big problem that people no longer want to have babies? About 30 years ago, China adopted measures to control the population because it worried the burgeoning number of people could overwhelm land and environmental resources, and now why does it worry about the decline in population? The main concern is an imbalance in population structure leading to the aging problem and low birth rate. They believe it will make the demographic dividend disappear, influence labor supply, aggravate the pension issue and hollow out cities.
But every society has a strong capacity to regulate itself. We do not need to be too anxious about people dithering to have babies. Based on the experience of developed countries, low birth rate is a result of social development, not a disaster. Low birth rates have been there in Japan and South Korea for decades and although some counties have been hollowed out, their economies and living standards have not weakened. Germany has emerged stronger despite declining birth rate for years and Singapore maintains sound social development with a low birth rate.
Every era has its problems and can find solutions. However, the way a problem is approached may meet obstacles.
Hence, we need to deal with them calmly and learn from other countries' experience, making nation and society adapt to the new labor supply, dependency ratio and security system because of the demographic change.
Meanwhile, China should actively undertake industrial transformation and upgradation, promote population movement, develop pension and health care system, improve education and employment, and provide good environment and services for families to have and raise children.
Population may neither be a burden nor a resource. The society does not need to be over-anxious about the birth rate. The invisible hand will also play a role in regulating the population.