Despite its nearly one and a half billion inhabitants, in recent years China has also been forced to have to deal with the problem of birth rate and with the probable future consequences of a population that is aging more and more.
In fact, some Chinese parliamentarians are fighting for the abolition, or at least a profound revision, of national family planning policies is in recent days. A request made with the aim of reversing the current trend of births, which in 2018 saw the lowest number of newborns in the country – just over 15 million – since 1961; that is since the days of the so-called Great Chinese famine, during which the succession of natural disasters and bad economic policies led millions of people to die of hunger. In the bills presented to the National People’s Assembly, parliamentarians from all over China have asked their superiors to set up incentives for maternity, such as tax breaks and free public education, as well as a general improvement in medical facilities health of the country.
Some of them even called for the abolition of the practice of birth control, aiming at eliminating from the constitution any reference to family planning, besides abolishing the one-child policy as a whole.
The controversial measure was in fact established in 1978 and has only recently been made softer by the state authorities precisely in order to combat – with almost zero results – the birth rate, allowing Chinese couples to have a second child without incurring hefty fines since 2016 or forced abortions. Asked about the matter, the Guangdong Province Li Bingji MPhe explained how the demographic will have to be the main priority of the Chinese government for at least the next four decades: “Continuous control over fertility will inevitably defeat the purpose of the latter and make it even more difficult to solve the entrenched problem of population decline”.
Although the parliamentarians’ proposals are not legally binding, the fact that they were presented simultaneously and in such large numbers – in five of these explicitly referred to as “complete liberation of fertility” – could probably lead the leaders of the Communist Party to open a dialogue on a subject so strongly felt by the population. As further explained by Harvard University researcher Susan Greenhalgh, who has been studying the one-child policy for years, questioning family planning policies would be a revolutionary change within Chinese society: “Eliminating from the constitution the assumption that all couples have to plan the birth of their children would be an important change in thinking, since the planning of human production at the national level, since the mid-1970s, has been considered vital for the modernisation of China as economic production planning”.
The economic aspect is the one that most worries critics of family planning, alarmed by the prospects that by 2035 a quarter of the Chinese population will be made up of people over the age of 60 – compared to 17.3 percent in 2017 – a percentage destined to rise steeply by the end of the century, when China will be half over 60.
An unstoppable decline that according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences will lead the population to decline starting from 2027, reaching, in 2065, more or less the same number of inhabitants in 1990, 1.17 billion people, to which of course must be added a collapse of the workforce of about 200 million people. The scenario to which China is going to meet, increasingly resembles that of neighbouring Japan, where stagnation has been both economic and demographic for decades, even though it presents a significant difference, often highlighted by local media: the country is aging faster than getting rich.
According to Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, China in effect is entering a phase of unstoppable recession: “China has created a deadly demographic trap for itself, condemning itself to low or non-existent growth for years to come. This regardless of how many children Chinese women can give birth to, whether using persuasion or coercion”. Nefarious prediction partially shared also by the aforementioned Dr. Greenhalgh, who however grants a faint hope in case of drastic government interventions: “Virtually no country in the world has been able to stimulate birth rates for a significant period of time after the aforementioned rates have decreased due to modernisation. But if the Chinese government encouraged single women over 30, or homosexual couples , to have a child, this could make a difference, but such changes seem unlikely given the social conservatism of the current regime”.