HONG KONG, Aug 9 (Reuters) – China’s strict zero-Covid policy is discouraging more and more women from having children. Claire Jiang, for example, changed her life plans during the week-long shutdown in the financial metropolis of Shanghai: she no longer wants to have children in China. “There’s no way I want my children to grow up with the insecurity of a country where the government can just come to your door and do whatever they want,” says the 30-year-old, who works in the media industry. Studies have shown that pandemics and economic uncertainty affect birth rates around the world. But specifically in China, the zero-Covid policy, where any outbreak is immediately suppressed with tight control over people’s lives, may have deeply affected people’s desire to have children, demographers say.
During lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere in China, there have been reports of people losing income or unable to access medical care or food, or of authorities forcibly entering homes to keep people, including the elderly and children, in quarantine centers. In April and May, the hashtag “We are the last generation” went viral on Chinese social media before being censored. The sentence was intended to commemorate the response of a man who was contacted by authorities in hazmat cases, who threatened to punish three generations of his family if they failed to comply with corona regulations. “It hit me hard,” Jiang says.
PEOPLE OF CHINA MAY SUBMIT
According to demographers, people’s perceived loss of control over their lives can greatly influence their desire to have children. “China’s zero-Covid policy has resulted in a zero economy, zero marriages and zero fertility,” noted Chinese demographer Yi Fuxian. Chinese authorities, in turn, have repeatedly argued that the strict policy is necessary to save lives, citing the millions of deaths worldwide, compared to just 5,226 officially reported deaths in China since the pandemic began.
The United Nations predicted in a July report that China’s population of 1.4 billion could begin to shrink as early as next year, when India overtook China as the world’s most populous country. The UN experts predict that China’s population will fall by 109 million people by 2050 – more than three times the decline predicted in 2019. The pandemic is also likely to have a long-term impact on first births, as many women worried about their financial security, difficulty conceiving and caring for an infant under severe restrictions.
“Couples who might have considered having a child next year have definitely put it off. Couples who weren’t really sure put it off indefinitely,” said Justine Coulson, the United Nations Population Fund representative in China. According to demographers, newborns will fall to a record low this year: from 10.6 million last year to below 10 million — that would be 11.5 percent less than in 2020. Demographer Yi has data on infant tuberculosis vaccinations, marriage registrations and searches for maternity and baby products rated on Baidu, China’s top search engine. He estimates that Corona will lead to one million fewer births in 2021 and 2022 combined, and this trend will intensify in 2023.
A GOOD CAREER INSTEAD OF A GOOD MOTHER
China – which followed the one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 to stave off population growth – has officially acknowledged that it is on the brink of a demographic downturn. Its fertility rate of 1.16 births per female in 2021 is below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population and among the lowest in the world. For about a year, the authorities have introduced measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, improved health insurance, housing allowance, extra money for a third child and a crackdown on expensive private tuition. Still, Chinese women’s desire to have children is the lowest in the world, according to a survey by think tank YuWa Population Research released in February.
According to Peter McDonald, professor of demography at the University of Melbourne, one of the main reasons for low birth rates is gender inequality. China is number 102 out of 146 countries. Demographers assume that the measures taken so far are not sufficient. They also cite high education costs, low wages and notoriously long working hours as issues that still need to be addressed, as well as coronavirus policies and concerns about economic growth. Society’s expectations of a good mother are also high, notes 25-year-old financial analyst Jiahui Wu. “It seems a lot easier to be a good father,” she said. “I prefer to have a good career.”
Zero Covid, zero children – the Corona policy clouds the desire to have children in China
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Cover photo: Symbolic photo
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