China’s long-term rise in dependency ratio poses a significant threat to its economic viability and, consequently, its domestic governance and stability. Moreover, it casts a shadow over China’s prospects of global economic competitiveness. China’s aging population (12% of total population in 2020, up from 8% in 2010), combined with a rapid increase in life expectancy (76 years, up from 66 years in 1979), and shrinking labour force since 2018 (771 million, down from 787 million) mean that China’s government faces a shrinking tax base with a simultaneous increase in the draw on social benefits and healthcare.; The failure to balance changing demographics and thereby secure revenue and economic sustainability will result in the need for unpopular policies, such as an increased retirement age and cuts to social spending. While maximizing worker productivity and increasing immigration would help mitigate the economic impact, this policy paper focuses the long-term solution of increasing China’s birth rate for managing – and ideally correcting – the dependency ratio.
The severity of the issue is obvious. China’s birth rate (i.e., number of births per 1000 people) reached a record low of 10.5 in 2019, and the UN predicts that China’s population will decrease after 2030., , China’s fertility rate (i.e., the average number of births per woman over her lifetime) has dropped to 1.3, which is far below 2.1 replacement rate required in industrialised countries for population stability. China is set to become a “super-aged society”: over-65’s will account for 25-30% of the population by 2050 and ~67 dependents per 100 workers. The situation presents imminent risks to families with dependents and the economy overall.
Factors contributing to low fertility rates in developed countries are well-documented: urbanisation, female education and labour-force participation, high living costs, and improved life-expectancy for newborns. China-specific factors include: gender imbalance (a demographic “shortage” of women), the social effects of the 1979-2016 One Child Policy (OCP), a trend towards late first marriages, the rarity of births outside of wedlock, a shortage of childcare services, and the weak enforcement of maternity law. Nonetheless, China’s statistics bureau asserts that China’s “women of childbearing age are willing to have 1.8 children on average.” If this is true, policy recommendations to increase the birth rate can be successful by taking three main approaches that address a range of factors: first, utilise incentives to offset the economic burdens of child-rearing and cost-of-living; second, increase availability of childcare services; and third, better protect the interests and career choices of educated, independent women to reassure those who worry about taking maternity leave.
Population decline has been on government radar for decades, yet policies so far fail to significantly alter the birth rate’s downward trajectory – though it may be too soon to judge the effectiveness of very recent policies. The results of amendments to the OCP, allowing for two children (2016) and three children (2021), are disappointing; only 2.5% of eligible couples have since taken advantage of the changes. China missed a 2016 target to achieve a 1.8 fertility rate, and the total number of births in fact decreased 20% in 2019 over 2018. The facts indicate that the OCP has not recently been a critical hindrance to larger families, for it surprisingly allowed couples to have their preferred number of children: one. Other policies aim to encourage larger families by reducing costs of child raising and relieving parental burdens. An education policy issued mid-2021 by the General Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and the General Office of the State Council limits after-school tutoring, for-profit tutoring, foreign online tutoring, and tutoring past 9pm, and encourages children get adequate sleep and protect their eyesight. Unfortunately, one troubling side effect is a shortage of affordable tutoring options, thereby potentially exacerbating inequality. A suspected, targeted policy to promote marriage and childbearing aimed to shame unmarried and childless professional women over age 27 into domestic life, labeling them “leftover women” (shèngnǚ 剩女). Although a policy document is lacking, there is strong suspicion of official support: the All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF), an organization under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and endorsed by the state, published online articles in 2007 that stigmatized “leftover women”.,  The suspected policy’s outdated attitude backfired, strengthening feminist solidarity among young women, who relabeled themselves “victorious women” (shèngnǚ 胜女). The gender equality perspective prefers recent policy changes that guarantee maternity insurance and support leave (chǎnjià 产假), set nationally by the State Council and modified at the provincial level by People’s Congresses. Legislation merged maternity insurance into the employee basic health care fund and requires employers to pay premiums. The 2012 Regulation on Labour Protection of Women Workers mandated 98 days of paid maternity leave for residents and migrant workers, and the 2016 revision to the Law on Population and Family Planning mandated an additional one-to-three months of paid maternity leave (most commonly totaling 4.7 months), to be determined by provincial and municipal governments.
A 2021 official release states that new policies will mainly address “rising education costs, a shortage of day care services and gender imbalance in the workplace”. Only the last policy area mentioned in the list tacitly recognizes the importance of employment law and social attitudes towards women. Increasing the birth rate can only be accomplished through the uncoerced cooperation of China’s economically emancipated, educated young women, who are reluctant to marry. This is no trivial matter, since out of wedlock births in China are relatively rare: no marriage, no children. Additionally, couples make decisions jointly, but biology gives a woman “veto” power. These facts advise China’s governance – comprised mostly of mature men – to undergo a perspective change. Equipped with a better understanding of women’s legal, economic, and social concerns, it will be possible to choose, construct, and expand on successful policies. Of course, policy must be formulated to be non-coercive and non-punitive towards women who choose to remain childless, in order to uphold a woman’s right to remain so. But there are three additional justifications for non-gender-neutral policy: 1) the magnitude of the dependency-ratio problem threatens women disproportionally since women live longer and become especially vulnerable in old age, and 2) the fact of childbirth being under women’s control makes gender highly relevant, and 3) policies can be formulated in a way that contributes to gender egalitarianism efforts overall. Having forestalled this important concern, this policy paper boldly recommends a shift towards women-centered policies to implement an array of environmental changes that encourage marriage and child-rearing, to mitigate the problematic dependency ratio and protect China’s newly minted “moderately prosperous society in all respects” (小康社会).
For economic sustainability, demographics matter more than population size. China’s 1.3 fertility rate and torpedo-shaped population “pyramid” together forecast a “rapidly aging society.” Ning Jizhi of the National Bureau of Statistics describes the contracting population: “the aging population has grown, and the total fertility rate decreased, and the number of births were also low”. China, having only recently achieved upper-middle-income status, still has a large and worryingly number of relatively poor in both villages and cities. The birthrate between 2016 and 2019 declined despite the relaxed birth limits and declined even more prominently between 2019 and 2020 (14.65 million births vs. 12 million births). The aged comprise an increasing portion of society, projected to reach nearly 1/3 of the population by 2050. Even between 2010 and 2020, the portion aged 65 and older leapt from 8.87% to 13.5%. A shrinking population and increased dependency ratio together carry high costs. First, fewer workers mean decreased tax revenues, which in turn squeezes governments precisely when the social benefits and healthcare services for elderly non-workers are in demand. Second, decreased national productivity overall results in fading global economic significance. The high proportion of the very old to the very young is risky for families, government, and the economy. Worth mentioning alongside the massive economic concern is the possibility of a “silver democracy” in which the interests of elderly become disproportionally represented in policy at the expense of the young, thus threatening social and political stability.
The typical factors of low fertility are exacerbated by China’s specific factors, most prominently the OCP. Initially met with resistance, the OCP is now a self-enforced norm. The OCP maximized economic development, increased higher education completion, and promoted gender equality in education. As a result, China’s women are economically independent workers, educated professionals, and entrepreneurs who are not only financially secure but also sole heiresses of their parents’ wealth. The problem (from a social stability viewpoint) is that many women are loathe to sacrifice their independence to get married and become mothers; those who choose motherhood are doing so much later. Although women are ensured legal equality in China (男女平等), there are tenacious patriarchal attitudes about power in marriage and the roles of mother and father, even among college-educated males. In well-off cities, the average ages for first marriage and first child are rising, a fact that translates into fewer children per couple. China’s rapid urbanisation and real estate prices also contributes to low birth rate. Financial pressures weigh heavier than the pressure to produce offspring, and reports show that the average cost of raising one child quadrupled from 490,000 RMB (2005) to 1.99 million RMB (2020). Couples delay child-rearing for the sake of higher education, careers, and building wealth. Moreover, a lack of nursery care discourages childbearing. The previous decades’ shift to “nuclear family” living cuts out the traditional childcare provided by grandparents. Only 6% of parents in need of childcare have adequate access. When available, preschool care typically ends at 3pm, hours before parents leave work. Because of conflict between work and family, women fear that motherhood will rob them of hard-won careers and employment. Although equal rights are enshrined in China’s constitution and labor laws to prevent discrimination against women, a June 2021 report by Human Rights Watch reveals that women continue to be victims of e.g., discriminatory hiring practices, “no pregnancy” contracts, fines for unscheduled pregnancies, or replacement and denial of compensation while on maternity leave. Such illegal actions discourage pregnancy. Notably, the legal issue results not from lack of laws but weak enforcement utilising arbitration and warnings instead of hefty fines. The onerous court process, unclear burden of evidence, low compensation, and risk of employer retaliation dissuade women from taking legal action. Given the importance of an increased birth rate to China’s future, Chinese women should receive stronger legal protections.
The overall policy of China’s government, particularly the State Council, has been to take a managerial perspective to offset the impact of women’s career choices and address cost-of-living challenges. The National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s “mini-State Council,” has prioritized what it calls a “fertility-friendly society”. The State Council’s policies regarding maternity leave and employment rights of working women are supported by provincial and municipal governments. The capital Beijing, for example, awards additional 30 days leave for a third child, and more if the workplace agrees. In Sichuan, Panzhihua pays 500RMB per month for a second or third child. Extensive supporting policies are planned so that by “2025, China will basically establish a policy system that actively supports births with … lower costs in child bearing, care and education,” as well as perinatal services and leave. National Healthcare Security Administration (NHSA) introduced a maternity insurance policy of “prompt and full reimbursement of the medical cost and subsidy” for working women who give birth to a third child. China’s latest Five-Year Plan recognizes the national importance of childcare to support the “three-child policy”, and the Ministry of Education (MoE) plans to implement non-profit or government-subsidized kindergartens and from fall 2021 so that “all compulsory education institutions in the country will provide after-school services”. A reduction of the costs of urban living come from tax deductions and preferential access to public rental housing to accommodate parents of children below age three, especially single income families. In response to discriminatory workplace practices, the plans also include flexible work leave for female workers.
There is limited research making definitive or causal claims about policy effectiveness. One measurable area of success, however, relates to housing prices. Statistical research the possibility of ascertaining a threshold for housing prices-to-income, above which there is a negative effect on the birth rate: a 1% increase in housing prices results in a 0.021% decrease in birth rate. Nonetheless, the absence of specific research makes it difficult to fully understand the extent to which higher wages, income distribution, and lower cost housing are successful. What is certain: the elimination of birth limits will have little effect in the short-term unless there is a significant decrease in cost-of-living and/or suitable increases in tax incentives and income supplements.
The declining birth rate and rise in dependency ratio are a natural and expected problems of development, but China’s pace is disturbingly rapid. The urgency calls for all solutions to be considered – not just the most obvious. Economic incentives and fixing employment law enforcement are certainly important areas for effective policy change, but society also needs better compatibility between motherhood and career.
Better “compatibility” requires acknowledgement of hidden social obstacles, for example, men’s and women’s incompatible attitudes regarding marriage and parenting. Women regard career and education as representations of self-worth, strength, and achievement; meanwhile, their careers and education are de facto obstacles to men seeking traditional family life and fatherhood. In China, even college-educated males have less egalitarian attitudes towards gender roles and power in relationships than their female counterparts. Moreover, traditional attitudes are correlated to earlier marriage.  Quite plausibly, this explains why educated women are so unlikely to marry less-educated men: these men marry earlier and marry compatible (i.e, less-educated, traditionally-minded) women. The latent mismatch in attitudes contributes to educated, urban women’s reluctance to marry and to their perception of few suitable partners. While policy makers might be tempted to overlook this analysis, the puzzling phenomenon of so-called “leftover ladies” in a country where men outnumber women supports this assessment and highlights it as an important area for policy. Men’s latent attitudes also effect family size: one study found that a “husband’s share of housework and emotional support for having two children were the single most important factor predicting women’s ideal family size and desire to have a second child” and concluded that a “husband’s attitude might be a difficulty” causing women to revise their desire for (more) children.  Furthermore, a “husband’s higher education was associated with an increased likelihood of” a woman idealizing a two-child family. This research highlights the urgency for a new perspective for social policy, one which emphasizes egalitarian attitudes in gender and marriage roles. Such a perspective change can easily integrate into existing policies in order to improve their curative effect and is compatible with both intensification and expansion of the key policies already in place. For example, plans for flexible leave to allow mothers to attend sick children and school events could instead be split between mother and father, and egalitarian teachings can be incorporated into school curriculums with very limited cost.
- Incrementally increase paid maternity leave up to one year
- Introduce home-business and remote-work training during maternity leave
- Cover education up to grade 12
- Increase access to low-cost housing close to schools
- Expand state-funded kindergarten and preschool
- Expand tax incentives for second or third child
- Enforce maternity leave laws using harsher penalties, public exposure of violators, and the social credit system
- Strictly punish discriminatory job advertisements and hiring practices
- Teach gender egalitarianism and family harmony in schools, focused on fairness and peaceful dispute resolution
- Implement mandatory prenatal programs (funded by insurance) to discuss safe and healthy childcare, strategies for parental communication, and distribution of childcare roles
- Introduce national intervention and counselling programs to promote family harmony, resolve marital conflicts, and reduce sexist or violent attitudes
- Normalize images of two-child families in the media
- Mandate national paternity leave to fortify provincial policies (currently allowing for at least seven days)
- Continue to enhance time-flexibility: legislate childcare leave and legally protect parents who utilise it
- Require largescale employers to provide safe, in-house daycare (and audited by the state)
- Require new residential buildings to include three- and four- bedroom apartments to normalize larger families and three-generation living, maximizing family resources of time and money
- Make cities more livable for children with play spaces and family-oriented parks
China must deliberately advance social and legal egalitarianism to catch up with egalitarianism in economics and education. Immediately and in the long-term, this makes marriage and childbearing become more compatible with women’s careers.
Some might argue that China should instead abandon all childbirth limits, especially in ethnic women who desire more children. This is certainly a contentious area of conflict between policy, human rights, and the advancement of women in society. The caveat of such an approach is that ethnic areas in China suffer low education rates, low employment rates, and social instability and, therefore, removing birth limits risks exacerbating a variety of problems in economically dependent populations. It also runs counter to women’s liberation and education efforts, since women’s education and lower birth rates are (in most cases) shown to be mutually-enhancing. Others might argue that China should focus on maximizing and increasing worker productivity to offset the poor dependency ratio. Certainly, this is already underway in urbanisation, increased utility of existing labour force, developing human capital in skilled manufacturing, and strengthening technological and industrial competitiveness. Productivity per worker continues to increase as high-end and high-tech manufacturing jobs move to China and low-end manufacturing are relocated to e.g., Vietnam. GDP per capita is at a steady, manageable rate. The suggestion to increase immigration and encourage permanent placement are unfeasible in China due to the language barrier, difficulty integrating, and the importance of cultural/social cohesion for stability in China’s unique political system.
So long as policies are carefully formulated, a women-centered approach to policy can be non-coercive and non-punitive, fostering a “fertility-friendly” society and promoting widespread gender equality. Should China not expand its policy to address the less obvious social attitudes and legal conditions contributing to low fertility, women will continue to resist marriage and motherhood of even one child – let alone having the three children allowed by OCP amendments. A burden of costly policies will ensue, such as raising the retirement age and decreasing social benefits to elderly, pushing health initiatives to make adults more careful about their health, and staving off the lifestyle illnesses of developed countries. In fact, Ning of the Statistics Bureau indicates that more than 50% of the adults age 60-69 are in good health and can continue to make economic contributions, and foreshadows a higher retirement age, saying, “The potential of [the over-65’s] to continue making contributions to society and playing a constructive role is big”. The government would likely increase taxes on workers to cover deficits, further compounding financial pressure on working-age population; since this is a major contributory factor to the low birth rate, such increased taxes perpetuate the problem long-term.
The financial cost of the comprehensive approach suggested will pinch but can be temporary if implemented sooner than later. A downward spiral without a workable strategy will inevitably worsen: workable strategies need voluntary cooperation from women. It may be difficult to find initial support for social policies that, thus far, have little research compared to economic policy. However, immediate implementation could see measurable results in a single generation as more marriages, fewer divorces, and more children. At present, 70% of divorces in China are initiated by women. Additionally, the comprehensive approach could start with social policies that easily integrate into the existing policies to extend their effectiveness. Finally, gender equality policies promise multi-faceted benefits by reducing social instability and violence in society. According to academic research, oppression of women makes societies poorer and shows strong statistical links between unequal treatment of women and violent instability. In fact, social inequality is a better predictor of stability than urbanisation and good governance, such that: “the surest way to curse one’s nation is to subordinate its women,” for when men are without women, their frustration is dangerous. The pacifying affect of egalitarianism applies to China, where every 1% rise in the ratio of men to women led to a 3.7% rise in violent and property crime. Therefore, implementation of women’s perspectives and women-centered policies will pay off in more ways than just raising the birth rate. It has potential to minimize economic risks, political risks, social risks, and global risks.
The problematic dependency ratio cannot be combatted by economic or legal policy alone. Because the birth rate in China ultimately relies on the willingness of women to marry and become mothers, egalitarianism in gender roles and marriage must not be overlooked as fundamental to a long-term increase in fertility rate and decrease in dependency ratio. When social dynamics serve as obstacles to marriage and childbearing, it is necessary to ensure that both men and women are flexible and adaptive towards each other’s interests and needs. This policy paper makes clear that China’s government has an urgent role in promoting all aspects of equality – not just education and economic – given the data available, for with each passing year a dependency ratio crisis looms closer.
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 Age dependency ratio is defined as the number of dependents (population aged 0-14 and older than 65 years) for every 100 workers.
 “Statement by Vice-Minister of the National Population and Family Planning Commission of China,” Statement by Mr. Jiang Fan at the 40th session of the UN Commission on Population and Development (Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, October 4, 2007), https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/ceun/eng/xw/t310844.htm.
 Mass immigration carries other social and economic stability risks, and China’s economy is already shifting towards skilled labour and white-collar work.
 Between 10-20 births per 1000 is considered low; for comparison, Japan’s problematic birth rate is 7 per 1000 people.
 “Population Projection by the UN,” Our World in Data, accessed October 3, 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/un-population-projection-medium-variant?tab=chart&country=~CHN.
 “Children per Woman,” Our World in Data, accessed October 3, 2021, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/total-fertility-rate-by-development-level-including-un-projections-through-2100?time=1996..2021&country=More%2BDeveloped%2BRegions~CHN. Some sources even cite 1.3 children per woman.
 Natalie Smoak, “Fertility Rate,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., May 12, 2016), https://www.britannica.com/topic/fertility-rate. The Total Fertility Rate, also known as the replacement rate is 2.1.
 “Population Projection by the UN”; Rong Chen et al., “China Has Faster Pace than Japan in Population Aging in next 25 Years,” BioScience Trends 13, no. 4 (August 21, 2019): pp. 287-291, https://doi.org/10.5582/bst.2019.01213, pp. 287-88.
 Ross Garnaut, Jane Golley, and Rod Tyers, “China’s Growth to 2030: Demographic Change and the Labour Supply Constraint,” in The Turning Point in China’s Economic Development (Canberra, ACT: ANU E Press, 2006), pp. 203-226.
 Growing economic and opportunity inequality is another major concern for policy.
 Wu, F. (2021) ‘China country note’, in Koslowski, A., Blum, S., Dobrotić, I., Kaufman, G. and Moss, P. (eds.) International Review of Leave Policies and Research 2021. Available at: https://www.leavenetwork.org/annual-review-reports/
 Antoine Boquen, “Understanding Maternity and Marriage Leave in China,” New Horizons Global Partners (New Horizons Global Partners, March 9, 2021), https://nhglobalpartners.com/maternity-marriage-leave-in-china/.
 Japan, for example, has intergenerational discord due to its rapidly aging society.
 Wei Huang, Xiaoyan Lei, and Ang Sun, “Fertility Restrictions and Life Cycle Outcomes: Evidence from the One-Child Policy in China,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 103, no. 4 (October 16, 2021): pp. 1-17, https://doi.org/10.1162/rest_a_00921.
 Zhixia Chen, Susan T. Fiske, and Tiane L. Lee, “Ambivalent Sexism and Power-Related Gender-Role Ideology in Marriage,” Sex Roles 60, no. 11-12 (March 26, 2009): pp. 765-778, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-009-9585-9.
 “Measures help young couples expand families”
 “Measures help young couples expand families”
 Yaqiu Wang, “Take Maternity Leave and You’ll Be Replaced”: China’s Two-Child Policy and Workplace Gender Discrimination (New York, NY: Human Rights Watch, 2021).
 Wang, pp. 27-30.
 Limited availability, at least in English language journals.
 For example, educated Chinese women have more flexible notions of gender roles than educated males. See Naijian Zhang, “Gender Role Egalitarian Attitudes among Chinese College Students,” Sex Roles 55, no. 7-8 (November 28, 2006): pp. 545-553, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-006-9108-x.
 Jianghua Liu and Virpi Lummaa, “Whether to Have a Second Child or Not? an Integrative Approach to Women’s Reproductive Decision-Making in Current China,” Evolution and Human Behavior 40, no. 2 (March 2019): pp. 194-203, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2018.11.004.
 Yigang Wei et al., “Predicting Population Age Structures of China, India, and Vietnam by 2030 Based on Compositional Data,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 4 (April 11, 2019), https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0212772.
 Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen, The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2020).