Fewer and fewer children are being born in China. The population is shrinking for the first time in more than 50 years.
Until a few years ago, it was a criminal offense for Chinese couples to have more than one child. Since 2021, Beijing has allowed up to three children. But the baby boom does not materialize, and the population even shrinks for the first time. One reason for this: Gainful employment and family work are difficult to reconcile in the People’s Republic.
Nancy, a young mother in her early 30s from Beijing, tries to balance her job in e-commerce with childcare on a daily basis. “I can’t reconcile the two,” says Nancy, whose real name is different, to the AFP agency. “Basically, if you want to breastfeed your child, you have to quit your job. But that’s not an option in our situation.”
In recent years, the situation for families has continued to deteriorate, says Wenjing, who blogs about raising children. “Many households have suffered greatly financially as a result of the pandemic. Under these difficult circumstances, many people decided not to have any more children,” observes the blogger.
Government has extended maternity leave
For the first time in more than half a century, the population in China fell last year, as the statistics office of what is still the most populous country in the world announced on Tuesday. Experts warn of a demographic crisis that could slow down economic growth and put a strain on public coffers.
Local authorities are trying to counteract this with various measures. Some municipalities initially pay parents a monthly allowance, while elsewhere there is a birth bonus. In major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, maternity leave has been extended to up to 158 days. That’s 60 days more than usual in China. Since last year, local governments have also been obliged to make crèche places available.
Parents must be able to afford childcare. According to the Asia Society Policy Institute, a place in a private kindergarten in Beijing costs at least 5,000 yuan (675 Swiss francs) a month, and in some institutions it can be as much as 20,000 yuan.
“I often don’t see my son”
Many parents depend on the support of relatives, and grandparents traditionally play an important role in raising children in China. “Our generation can only go to work because we exploit the grandparents who help us raise our children for a few years,” says Nancy.
“During the pandemic, our son was mainly looked after by his grandparents,” says Ivy Meng. The school was closed, but she and her husband still had to continue working full-time. Even now, Meng hardly has time to take care of her child. “I come home very late every evening and often don’t see my son. I don’t actually do any educational work at all,” she says.
But Meng still considers himself lucky – many young Chinese women don’t get any help from the extended family. “Often, their husbands don’t want to take responsibility for raising their children, and their parents or in-laws aren’t willing to help,” Meng says.
“It’s not something you can solve with money”
It is not only the workload in the tough Chinese corporate world that makes starting a family difficult. Societal expectations of child rearing are extremely high. With the one-child policy in place until 2016, parents focused their attention on that one child and tried to maximize their chances of success.
Nancy is convinced that this ambition also contributes to the decline in the birth rate. “Of course, if you lower your expectations a little, it might be less strenuous. But most people are very serious about raising their children,” she says.
According to experts, the government must provide significant financial relief to young parents. That’s not enough for Nancy. “No matter how much the government pays, I still wouldn’t want to have more children,” says the mother. “It’s not something you can solve with money.” (AFP/jmh)