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Changes in fertility critical to demographic development in China

ZHENG ZHENZHEN | 2020-03-17
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
Two nurses tend to newborns in a hospital. In China, changes in fertility play a critical role in the degree of population aging, the rate of negative population growth and the inertia of negative growth in the 21st century. Photo: XINHUA


As the years 2018 and 2019 marked the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in succession, scholars of various academic fields have been looking back on changes over the past 40 or 70 years. Demographers are no exception. 
The course of demographic change in China has been closely tied to socioeconomic development and policy adjustments since the founding of the PRC. At the beginning of the 21st century, after the reform and opening up, China had completed a demographic transition and entered an era featuring low fertility and near-zero population growth.  
A review of population evolution in China and major driving forces in the process will help us explain the current demographic situation more scientifically and grasp the future orientation of related policies more accurately. 
Declining fertility 
Demographic transition is a process in which the population evolves from high fertility, high mortality and low growth rates toward decreasing fertility and decreasing mortality, ultimately transitioning to low fertility, low mortality and low growth. 
In the 1950s, after the PRC was founded, the mortality of the Chinese population dropped by 50% over eight years, while the mortality rates of infants and children under five decreased drastically within 20 years, noted Li Jianmin, a professor from the Institute of Population and Development under the School of Economics at Nankai University, in the Green Book of Population and Labor
Although the decrease of the fertility rate lagged 20 years behind, the rate of decline was rather steep, falling from six births per couple on average in the 1970s to 2.31 births in the 1980s. The fertility rate decreased further in the 1990s, falling below the replacement level of 2.05 in 1992 and further down to below 1.8 in 1996. 
According to estimates made by Wang Guangzhou, a research fellow from the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the total fertility rate of China’s population has stabilized at 1.6 or lower in the 21st century. Except for slight rises in 2016 and 2017, when the loosening of the family planning policy stimulated some couples to have a second child, the rate has stood between 1.3 and 1.6. 
Consequent population aging
Due to falling fertility and decreasing births, the working-age population, defined as people aged from 16 to 64, has shrank continuously since 2013. As people born at the birth peak of the 1950s and 1960s successively surpass the working age, the working-age population will decline more steeply. It is estimated to reduce by 200 million by 2050. Consequently, population aging has begun to dominate changes in the population age structure. Since 2011, population aging has accelerated. 
Making use of census data, Wang pinpointed a few important features and years in the course of population aging. For example, the proportion of people aged 60 or older exceeded 8% of the total around 1984. The population aged steadily and quickly in the latter 35 years of the seven decades since the founding of the PRC. The average age of the total population rose from less than 30 in 1994 to near 40 in 2019. In the next seven decades, people of 65 or above will reach a peak of 400 million in 2059, accounting for more than 30% of the total population. The population aged 80 or above will peak at approximately 160 million around 2070, accounting for roughly 40% of the entire population aged over 65. 
Li divided the forces driving population aging in China into three stages. Prior to 2010, the major forces were decreasing fertility and low birthrate, from 2010 to 2040 it will be the growth of the aged population and after 2040 longevity will be the major force.
Low-fertility trap
Over the 70 years since the PRC was founded, the Chinese population has gone through significant changes in size, structure, fertility, mortality and migration. With the transition from high fertility and growth to low fertility and growth completed, China will enter the era of negative population growth around 2030. Compared with the global average and other parts of the world, China’s move from the high population growth camp to the zero-growth camp in less than 100 years has been relatively quick. 
According to the World Population Prospects 2019 released by the United Nations, China will probably maintain the lowest level of growth in the world in the latter half of the 21st century. Though China shares a similar natural population growth path with South Korea, Thailand and Cuba, its huge population size determines that the shrink will cause greater impact. 
Because mortality changes slowly and in stable directions, international migration is unlikely to have remarkable effects on demographic evolution in China. The degree of population aging, the rate of negative growth and the inertia of negative growth in the 21st century will depend mostly on changes in fertility. 
The fertility of the Chinese population has long been an important research topic. In 2019, there were many scholars estimating and analyzing fertility in China. Despite varying analytical approaches and slightly different estimates, it has been an indisputable fact that the fertility of China’s population will remain at a low level for a long time to come. 
Low fertility in China is characterized by low childbearing desire, a low proportion of childbearing couples who have had a second child, and continuously delayed marriage and childbearing ages. More and more scholars hold that these demographic phenomena and characteristics signal the risk of very low fertility for China. 
By analyzing 66 countries and regions that have entered the low or very low fertility stage following a fertility transition and how long the low fertility stage lasted, Wu Fan, a professor of social work and social policy from the Zhou Enlai School of Government at Nankai University, concluded that the low-fertility trap is not accidental. The risk has spread to more countries and regions. Although some countries have never fallen into the trap or have seen fertility picking up from a very low level, it is not easy to sidestep the low-fertility trap.
Globally, the risk of the low-fertility trap is spreading from Europe and East Asia to East Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. It is not limited to developed countries but implicates developing nations as well. China faces a high risk of falling into the low-fertility trap, which is obviously detrimental to the long-term balanced development of the Chinese population. 
Public policy matters
Demographic changes in China over the past 70 years have something in common with population evolution globally, particularly in Asia, but they are also distinctive. These changes interweave and interact with socioeconomic development and changes in social policy. 
However, current studies of Chinese demographic changes are mostly “linear” examinations of macroscopic population phenomena. Few have related population evolution to socioeconomic and policy development. For example, analyses of declining fertility in the 1970s are not adequate and deep enough. More comprehensive research of the fertility transition and its influencing factors in different stages from multiple perspectives will help better understand and evaluate the role of birth control policies in different stages. 
Demographic changes and their impact involve families and individuals to a large extent. Changes at the family and individual levels will bear directly on family decision making and individual behaviors, thereby affecting population development on the macro level. Therefore, when studying demographic phenomena and related topics, it is vital to associate macroscopic population evolution with family and individual changes. In particular, pertinent policy discussions should not only focus on demographic indicators but also broaden analytical perspectives to consider how policies have influenced families and individuals against the backdrop of population and socioeconomic development. 
Zhong Xiaohui, a distinguished associate research fellow from the School of Government at Sun Yat-sen University, applied an analytical framework of “active families,” whose members cope with risks and fight for opportunities with conscious plans and actions, aiming to review the impact of different public policies on families since reform and opening up. She pointed out that supportive policies such as the land contract system for farming households and those for individually owned businesses have motivated families and exerted important positive impact on them. 
Zhong’s research suggests that policies should support families by facilitating the potential and initiative of all family members and inspiring them to build happy families in the ways most suitable to them, rather than directly intervening in their behaviors. 
Based on the demographic situation in China, Hu Zhan, an associate professor from the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University, and Peng Xizhe, dean of the school at Fudan, proposed reinterpreting the basic state policy of family planning and encouraging couples to decide on their childbearing plans by themselves in light of their own conditions, family status and socioeconomic environment.  
Since its founding, the new China has completed the demographic transition and stabilized at low fertility and low mortality. In the 21st century, the negative growth and structural aging of the total population are irreversible, which necessitates reflection on Chinese population studies and the direction of related policy discussions. Socioeconomic development and public policy, including demographic policy, have contributed jointly to the completion of the demographic transition; therefore, public policy, especially household-related policy, should play a new positive role to help meet future challenges. 
Zheng Zhenzhen is a research fellow from the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
​edited by CHEN MIRONG