As Shannon noted a few days ago, the upcoming Chinese census may spur the Communist Party there to further relax its family planning laws or even to abolish them altogether. 

This is to be welcomed from a human rights point of view, and is perhaps to be expected from a demographic point of view.  

The previous loosening of the rules in 2016 allowed all couples to have a second child. (Prior to this the rule was the one child policy, although there were a number of categories of couples exempted from this policy.) After the two-child policy was adopted, according to the official Chinese statistics the number of births rose significantly: by 1.3 million from the previous year to 17.86 million in total.  

In 2017 over half of the total number of births in China consisted of second-children. This suggests that a large number of women decided to have a second child as soon as the policy was relaxed. But this “pile-up effect” was short lived. After this spurt of second-children due to pent up demand, the number of births in China has fallen three years in a row, 2017-2019. In 2019 there were 10.5 births per 1,000 people; 14.6 million babies in total, the lowest number in 60 years.  

These figures have led Ren Zeping, the chief economist for Evergrande, argue recently in an article that China should further relax its birth restrictions, so that couples be allowed three children. Since the number of women of reproductive age is continuing to decline, it will be harder for China to increase its birth rate as the years go by. Since it also very difficult to change people’s behaviour (especially after half a century of one-child propaganda and few examples of larger families) Zeping argues that the quicker the policy is loosened the better.  

China’s current fertility rate of around 1.6 children per woman means that its population will start to shrink in the very near future and that its number of working-aged citizens is already declining. The country is also rapidly getting older. By 2060 it is predicted that over a third of the population will be aged 60 or older. A smaller labour force and an ageing population will create large economic headwinds, a danger for a dictatorship that is reliant on keeping a large part of the Chinese population quiescent through economic growth.  

But it is not at all clear that lifting the legal barriers will result in a large number of new births over a sustained period. The cost of raising a child is another barrier that will not go away with a move to a “three-child policy”. Those determined to give their children an excellent education will be paying more than the average wage in Kindergarten fees alone, while those wanting a nanny, extracurricular activities and medical insurance could be spending 200,000 yuan per child per year (the average wage is roughly 90,000 yuan a year). 

There are regional and national economic policies to alleviate parents’ financial strains. In Liaoning (in the northeast) local authorities have announced that there will be an additional 60 days of maternal leave as well educational and medical subsidies for families with two children. Nationally, couples can now get tax relief on spending related to their children’s education.  

However, such policies still leave untouched parts of the culture which make it harder to have a family. Leaving aside the years of societal training that one child families were the correct option, there is still workplace and recruitment policies that make it harder to have children. Until child-bearing is not seen as a hindrance to employment, then many young Chinese women will not have a family, or have more than one child. 

Marcus Roberts is a Senior Researcher at the Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand, and was co-editor of the former MercatorNet blog, Demography is Destiny. Marcus has a background in the law, both...