BEIJING — On Jan. 21, China's National Bureau of Statistics published the number of newborns in 2018: 15.23 million, two million fewer than the year before — and nearly 6 million fewer than what was predicted by the National Health and Family Planning Commission.
What this means is that after China loosened up its one-child policy three years ago, the country's birthrate continues to fall sharply instead of going up as was originally expected.
This was in fact already predicted. A while ago, U.S. financial services company Goldman Sachs lowered the target share price of several Chinese dairy giants because the number of newborns in China is declining. Goldman Sachs expects that sales of infant formula will remain mostly flat in 2019, with the possibility of going up by only 0.5%, while by 2020 they are expected to fall by 2%.
The new demographic data once again set off a wave of discussion in China. Whether one admits it or not, what matters is that the country's demographic boom has ended and an aging society is approaching. It is truly a turning point. China has to readjust its population planning — to change from a society that restricted reproduction to a society that is friendly to reproductive rights. This is not easy. After all, we have lived in a context where for 40 years people were obliged to believe that "one child is best", with a huge family planning system supporting this rhetoric. This discourse was inculcated into the consciousness of everyone. This historical legacy needs to be properly addressed.
Huang Wenzheng, a demography expert, pointed out that textbooks for primary and secondary schools should be re-examined, exchanging the propaganda on restricting fertility with respect for life and safeguarding of reproductive rights. It is indeed a detail that requires particular attention in structuring a childbearing-friendly society.
A misunderstanding of the boundary between individual rights and national needs.
The material and energetic costs of childbearing and of bringing up a child are all magnified today in China compared to the past. Meanwhile there are continuous scandals involving the country's education system. This puts a tremendous pressure on parenting.
When the major responsibility for upbringing falls on the shoulders of women, and men do not share much of their worries, it is an inevitable trend that fewer and fewer babies will be born. It is common to hear that "it is insane to have two kids".
This is not to mention that going from restricting childbirth to encouraging it is going from one extreme to the other.
All policies are to be based on the respect of individual reproductive rights. People can be guided, but not forced. Authorities shouldn't go from imposing the number of allowed children to bombarding people with how many children they now ought to have.
A few months ago, a scholar suggested that every citizen under forty should be taxed to contribute to a "childbirth fund" in proportion to their yearly wages; only families with at least two children would be subsidized by the fund. This provoked a huge public uproar.
Such thinking results from a misunderstanding of the boundary between individual rights and national needs. To have, or not have, children ought to be built on personal and family wishes. This is basic respect of human rights.
Demographic policy can never operate in isolation. It can work only by constituting a policy network through cooperating with other public policies. For example, education policies are very important. And this is precisely where China is lagging behind. It's an issue policymakers have to examine carefully.
The latest population data released by the National Bureau of Statistics makes us realize that the reform of population planning has come to a crossroads. Timely adjustment is the way forward, while avoiding chaos by capturing what motivates the public's concern is crucial. Only if individuals feel respected in their personal reproductive rights can any policy become effective.
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