There is no clear winner in the raging birth rate debate

Wan Lixin
Some experts believe that young, eligible couples could be encouraged or humored into reproductory behavior if adequate incentives are provided.
Wan Lixin

One of the concerns that delegates at the just-concluded Two Sessions could not avoid discussing was the falling fertility rate.

For instance, national political adviser Wu Ruijun from East China Normal University proposed that more birth-friendly policies should be created, ranging from marriage to child rearing and education.

Last year, the fertility rate among Shanghainese with registered households was 0.7, which was much lower than the rate of 2.1 required to sustain the population at replacement level.

The rate is very low, but consider that the cities with the lowest fertility rates – 1.09 for Tokyo in 2021 and 0.63 for Seoul in the same year – are among the wealthiest in the world.

A recent issue of the Guangzhou-based New Weekly magazine, while attempting to explore the birth issue in an article titled "In Shanghai, there is a scarcity of kids, but it's no use blaming the young people," also serves as a warning: for such a discussion to truly become relevant, it must proceed in a proper, sincere manner.

I read the comments by readers below the article.

"There should be concern for the demographics, but even more so for the people. Anything less would be trash talk. When reporting on the issue of births, avoid conveying the idea that young people are only vehicles for procreation," a reader commented.

In comparison, some experts believe that young, eligible couples (for whom marriage is no longer required) could be encouraged or humored into reproductory behavior if adequate incentives are provided.

Even if you recast the issue in strictly economic terms, not enough couples will feel secure enough to have children after conducting a reality check, which they would not fail to do, if they even began to evaluate the costs of raising children at all.

For example, if you have a son, you are required to find him a place to live. This may cost as little as 5 million yuan (US$700,000) in a city revered as "first-tier," which is far more than a wage-earning couple could hope to save during their working career.

This is not conjecture. Based on data from 41 cities in the Yangtze River Delta region from 2008 to 2018, one scholar discovered a substantial association between rising housing prices and fertility. According to a study conducted by the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, a 1-percent increase in property prices results in a 0.2-percent decline in a couple's willingness to have children. A comparable study in South Korea links the same 1-percent increase to a 0.014 reduction in children.

As a result, the aforementioned magazine has made a policy recommendation that I believe is the most plausible thus far: the key to truly creating incentives for more births is to make housing more affordable.

And this is not enough.

"The fact that housing prices in Tokyo and Seoul are far from being as absurd as those in China's first-tier cities implies that home price and birth rate may be associated but not decisive," Vera Fang from Shanghai commented on the magazine article.

"Consider how many examinations a youngster must pass in order to graduate in the top 5 percent, acquire a job, and then take out a 30-year mortgage. I can't stand seeing my children go through this, since I can't afford to have a backup plan for them. Forget it, it is enough that I have to go through this alone."

I'm concerned that if this conversation is done honestly, even specialists will lose their eloquence.

As a parent, I agree that a child might be a source of delight for the first few years as a preschooler, but they are a constant source of anxiety after that, and only an unmitigated optimist would fantasize about their children as a provision for their old age.

It might be important to reconsider Chinese culture's traditional emphasis on family as the basic unit of social fabric, in a familial and historical continuum that does not cease with the death of individuals.

According to this viewpoint, a married life dictated complementary roles for husband and wife, and thus marriage was more or less a social imperative.

Thus, having children is a sign of happiness, whereas not having children is a break from societal norms and the first evidence of filial impiety.

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