China needs more children to defuse a demographic time bomb that threatens to derail Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions to double China’s economy by 2035.
To achieve this goal, Beijing is bringing together local governments and businesses to encourage reluctant women to give birth – offering everything from baby bonuses to discounted mortgages and holiday pay that increases with the number of children.
Since May, when China began allowing families to have up to three children after decades of draconian family planning policies, local authorities and companies have pushed a slew of incentives for expectant parents.
Dabeinong Group, an agricultural technology company in Beijing, has been hailed as China’s most generous employer for expectant parents due to benefits of up to 90,000 yuan ($14,100) in cash and additional leave of up to 12 months for new mothers and nine days for fathers. Chinese law provides 98 days of maternal leave but no leave for fathers.
Dabeinong Vice President Chen Zhongheng said earlier this month that the company took the measures “because the government encourages births”.
Cash gifts start at 30,000 yuan ($4,740) for couples having their first baby, with the amount doubling and tripling respectively for the second and third child. The company also plans to increase maternity leave by one month, three months and 12 months, respectively, on top of what the government guarantees.
“We think department heads should take the initiative to have more babies,” Cheng said, according to the South China Morning Post. “They should play a leading role as long as their age and condition allows.”
In December, the northern province of Jilin announced it was offering loans of up to 200,000 yuan ($31,500) to married couples planning to have children, along with tax breaks and cash. Meanwhile, the eastern city of Nantong is offering housing subsidies of 400 yuan ($63) per square meter to families with three children, while in Zhejiang province, couples with more than one child can access a higher ceiling for low-cost housing loans.
In one of the most dramatic moves to date, Beijing last year banned tutoring to ease the financial and social pressures on parents, which are often cited as one of the main reasons for not wanting to children.
The push for more babies marks a reversal of China’s notorious one-child policy, which was in place for four decades until 2015.
While the policy was intended to prevent overcrowding, its unintended consequences now threaten the foundations of the world’s second-largest economy, as a growing imbalance between working-age people and older people is expected to stunt economic growth, overburden social services and disrupt social stability.
The problem for Beijing is that many women refuse to have more children, or none at all. After the end of the one-child policy, the country saw only a slight increase in the number of births, followed by five consecutive years of decline.
Last year, China’s birth rate fell to a record low of 7.52 per 1,000 people, with just 10.6 million born – a lower number than in 1961, when the Great Leap Forward of Mao Zedong caused widespread starvation and death.
“China’s demographic problem is beyond anyone’s imagination,” Yi Fuxian, a senior researcher in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Al Jazeera.
China’s population is expected to start declining in 2022, although many experts say the seismic turning point has already happened.
The government’s all-out effort to reverse the trend is spurred on by the fact that the country’s overall economic plans depend on maintaining population balance.
President Xi Jinping’s assertion in November that it was “very possible” to double China’s gross domestic product by 2035 was based on overly optimistic projections that the population would not begin to decline until 2031 , Yi said.
“China’s premature negative population growth means… the decline in economic vitality will also exceed expectations,” he said.
“The future will be eventful. Everyone should fasten their seat belt.
For many affluent and highly educated Chinese women, efforts to make raising children more attractive are too little, too late.
“Having a child would not entail time, money or freedom,” Kavita Yang, a 40-year-old university professor in Beijing, told Al Jazeera, asking to be referred to by an alias.
Yang decided last year that she was not going to have a child after hesitating for years. A child would need an investment of time, energy, and money that she realized she was unwilling to make.
Her decision was influenced by social expectations that women do housework and care for children – even when they also spend long hours in the workplace. The oversized responsibilities do not come with corresponding privileges: women in China cannot carry on family lines, while many complain of being denied the kind of support from their own family that would come naturally to men.
Young women in particular even avoid marriage: A survey released by the Communist Youth League in October showed that among 2,905 single urban residents aged 18-26, almost 44% of women said they didn’t intend to get married or weren’t sure they would. occur – almost 20 percentage points more than for men in the same category.
“If you’re getting married in China right now, in such a terrible environment and social setting, it’s just suicidal,” Rebecca Han, a 28-year-old former worker at an education company in Beijing, told Al Jazeera. “You are taking this huge risk and entering into a game of chance that you have very little chance of winning.”
Han thinks benefits like baby bonuses and extended parental leave fall flat for women after they have been seen all their lives as inferior to men, discriminated against in the workplace and burdened with responsibilities.
“At the heart of the problem is gender inequality within the family and the rising costs of raising and developing children,” Mu Zheng, assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
Although women make up more than 50 percent of university graduates in China, advancements in education and work are not yet reflected in family dynamics and public discourse, Mu said.
“Men should be encouraged to take time off and get involved in parenting,” she said. “Otherwise, with entrenched gender norms, women, especially those with better education and better career prospects, will become increasingly reluctant to have children.”
Some companies are experimenting with more holistic forms of support for women. Trip.com Group, China’s largest online travel agency, offers flexible working hours and free taxi rides for pregnant employees, subsidizes school fees and even pays employees to freeze their eggs, said Company CEO Jane Sun told Al Jazeera.
As a result, Sun said, women make up more than half of the company’s workforce, more than 40% of middle managers and more than a third of executives.
Yang, a professor at Peking University, said Chinese society is lagging behind in taking into account the mental and physical burdens of child-rearing placed on women – burdens that are male-bound are often not to be borne. the height of the occasion.
Until then, she cannot imagine having children.
“Taking care of myself first is my primary responsibility to my country,” she said.