China is aging fast. In 1978, the median age of a Chinese citizen was 21.5 years. By 2021, it had risen to 38.4, surpassing that of the United States. If China continues along its current trajectory and follows the rest of East Asia in descending to ultra-low fertility rates, its median age could rise to over 50 by 2050.
China’s rapidly aging society and plunging birth rate poses a host of challenges for its leaders, including a shrinking number of young workers and an increasingly unstable pension system. Beijing is steadily pivoting toward pro-natalism as a strategy to mitigate these risks. In 2016, the Chinese government scrapped its harsh one-child policy, and in 2021 it began introducing policies aimed at actively encouraging childbearing. The experience of China’s East Asian neighbors, however, indicates that such measures are unlikely to succeed in raising fertility rates. And the Chinese Communist Party’s re-embrace of traditional gender norms under General Secretary Xi Jinping is likely to turn the clock back on women’s rights by decades and exacerbate root causes of China’s cratering birth rates.
Beijing should change course, halt its ideological pivot against women, accept China’s grayer future, and address the consequences of aging by raising retirement ages, cutting unsustainable pension promises, and devising better care systems for the elderly, particularly those among China’s poor, rural population. If China fails to take these steps now, it is likely to both worsen its own demographic future and render the eventual necessary policy shifts sharper and far more painful.
BEIJING’S BABY BOOM GOES BUST
China’s population grew rapidly after the end of the civil war in 1949. Under communist leadership, China made rapid improvements in public health, life expectancy, and infant mortality, nearly doubling the population over three decades, from 540 million in 1949 to 969 million in 1979.
In the 1970s, Chinese authorities began to fear that overpopulation was impeding economic growth. They launched a voluntary population planning program (Later, Longer, Fewer) to convince couples to have fewer children. Fertility rates dropped dramatically, from 5.8 births per woman in 1970 to 2.7 in 1978.
In 1979, officials hardened these efforts into a compulsory nationwide birth planning regime known as the one-child policy. Central planners set numerical fertility targets that, alongside economic growth targets, were among the highest-priority targets used to evaluate party cadres for career advancement. Such targets created strong incentives for authorities to control births within their jurisdictions; some officials even resorted to compulsory sterilizations or forced abortions. More common were draconian fines for violations, which sometimes amounted to multiple years of salary for ordinary citizens.
By 2000, Chinese academics had begun to voice concerns about the long-term demographic consequences of these policies, including significant imbalances in male-female sex ratios at birth—the result of sex-selective abortions. As demographer Wang Feng noted, “China’s policy response to below-replacement fertility and to rapid population aging has been extraordinarily slow. It took researchers almost a decade to confirm the drop in fertility, and it took the Chinese government another decade to accept the findings of scholars”. Only in 2013 did the political consensus in Beijing’s halls of power begin to shift enough to permit significant shifts to core policies and the bureaucratic reorganization that reduced the power of the national family planning committee by folding it into the Ministry of Health.
Officials initially assumed that merely rolling back long-standing state restrictions would boost birth rates. In 2013, Beijing announced that couples would be allowed to have two children if one parent was an only child. In 2016, the one-child policy was formally scrapped in favor of a two-child policy; in 2021, it became a three-child policy.
But it was all to no avail. China’s birth rates have continued to plummet. In 2021, they fell to the lowest level since the famine-induced years that followed the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s. As a result, China’s official total fertility rate (TFR)—or the number of children that would be born to a woman if she were to experience current age-specific fertility rates throughout her reproductive years—has declined to 1.3. Some observers believe the true figure to be closer to 1.1, on par with that of other rapidly aging societies in East Asia.
Those figures are well below not only Beijing’s optimistic assumptions but even the most conservative United Nations low-fertility models. The rapidity of this population decline has forced significant revisions to official estimates of how fast China will age. When the Chinese government issued its 15-year population development plan in 2016, it projected that China’s total population would not begin to decline until 2030. Now that turning point may likely be reached as early as this year.
As the results of the 2020 census trickled out last year, Beijing went into overdrive. In the summer of 2021, the Politburo adopted the three-child policy and rolled out a comprehensive pro-natalist strategy aimed at removing financial and practical barriers deterring couples from having children. In July, for example, regulators outlawed China’s entire for-profit tutoring industry, wiping out a number of multibillion-dollar educational companies virtually overnight, perceiving them as a core part of an expensive educational arms race burdening parents.
Dozens of provinces have added weeks or months of paid maternity leave, some granting additional time for women who have a second or third child. In March, the government introduced a personal tax deduction for childcare expenses. Party cadres are mobilizing private companies and local governments to offer new parents “baby bonuses” and other financial incentives.
PLUNGING FERTILITY RATES
Other East Asian countries have already experimented with many of the same policies China is currently rolling out, only to see their birth rates fall to the lowest in the world.
In 1989, Japan’s fertility rate dropped to its then lowest level: the “1.57 shock”, as it became known, induced Japanese authorities to expand childcare facilities and establish one of the world’s most generous systems of parental leave, at least on paper. After Taiwan and South Korea hit the same point in the early years of this century, their governments created new parental leave policies, expanded preschools, and offered financial bonuses to couples for having children. Singapore took an even more aggressive approach, establishing government-run matchmaking programs and public housing policies that strongly favor married couples.
None of these ambitious measures mattered much. Fertility rates in East Asia have continued to plummet. Because birth rates are declining worldwide, it is easy to overlook how extraordinarily low East Asia’s rates have fallen. They are not merely well under the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, as is true for other aging countries such as Russia (1.8), Germany (1.6), or Italy (1.3). Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are in fact the five lowest in the world, hovering around 1.0. And South Korea’s rate is astonishingly low: 0.81 births per woman. By comparison, even geriatric Japan looks positively fecund at 1.37.
East Asia faces the same problems—high housing costs and demand for additional years of education—prompting young people globally to delay marriage and childbirth, or forego them altogether. However, as Taiwanese scholar Yen-hsin Alice Cheng notes, conservative social values play a particular role in East Asia. Roughly 40 percent of American births are out of wedlock. In Iceland, over 70 percent are. In Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, that figure is four percent, two percent, and 1.5 percent, respectively. Social taboos against nonmarital births—which remain nearly as strong in China as they do in neighboring countries—combined with steeply declining marriage rates have helped make East Asia’s fertility rates among the world’s lowest.
Behind declining marriage and birth rates lie highly gendered social expectations of who will take care of small children and elderly in-laws. Sweden and Japan have among the world’s best systems of paid paternity leave. In 2019, around 90 percent of Swedish fathers took it. Only 7.5 percent of Japanese fathers did. This is why many state efforts to boost fertility rates falter. Family-friendly work policies are worthless if people do not use them; baby bonuses are meaningless if they do not address underlying reasons leading people to opt out of marriage and childbirth. And despite decades of communist rhetoric about equality between the sexes, gendered expectations continue to shape the lives of women in China, as they do in many other societies.
STOPPING THE SLIDE
Beijing’s current plans resemble those Taipei and Seoul tinkered with some 15 years ago—back when those governments still thought that a pro-natalist jolt of incentives could significantly alter their futures. China now faces the same issues that hampered similar policies elsewhere in East Asia. In 2021, marriages plunged to a 36-year low. Some 44 percent of young urban women and 25 percent of men say they do not plan to marry. Non-marital births remain socially taboo. Unmarried mothers are ineligible for maternity benefits in many localities.
Oddly enough, China should be the country best positioned to tackle the gender issues at the heart of East Asia’s ultra-low fertility phenomenon. Party leaders rose to power by embracing socialist feminism. The first statute issued by Beijing’s new communist rulers was the 1949 Marriage Law, which required marital unions to be voluntary and granted women the right to divorce. In theory, one could vaguely imagine twenty-first-century China deciding to chart a course resembling Northern Europe, where an embrace of single parents, unmarried partnerships, same-sex relationships, egalitarian gender norms, and flexible leave policies targeting mothers and fathers alike have contributed to some of the highest fertility levels among developed countries.
But Beijing is turning away from its socialist legacy. Scholars such as Leta Hong Fincher have detailed how both post-1978 market reforms and Beijing’s concern with upholding social order have led to a steady resurgence of gender inequality and an erosion of women’s rights. Since his rise to power in 2012, Xi has infused state ideology with a heavy dose of neotraditionalism. Calls to elevate traditional culture and fuse it with Marxist-Leninism regularly echo in CCP rhetoric; quotes from classical Chinese philosophers now fill state media.
Xi seeks to steer China back to an earlier, more patriarchal era with respect to women. In early 2021, authorities published a compilation of his speeches on the family as part of an ongoing campaign to remold the party-led All-China Women’s Federation. In it, Xi extols family unity and invokes Chinese imperial precedent to praise “women’s special role” as “virtuous wives and good mothers, assisting their husbands and educating their children”.
Such calls are not merely rhetorical; they reflect a decisive shift in policy, as well. For example, the CCP is steadily turning against divorce. Scholars such as Xin He, Ke Li, and Ethan Michelson.
He Xin, Ke Li, and Ethan Michelson have documented that Chinese judges are increasingly unwilling to approve women’s requests to dissolve their marriages. In the early years of this century, Chinese courts approved 60 percent of divorce petitions. That has now declined to roughly 40 percent. Simultaneously, the percentage of divorce applications withdrawn by applicants has soared—from five percent in the late 1970s to over 25 percent today.
Facing stiff demands by CCP authorities to uphold social order and family harmony, judges are sacrificing women’s rights. Adverse decisions in divorce or child custody cases run the risk that an aggrieved husband may mobilize his extended relatives in a rural township to pressure—or even assault—the court. For many judges, it’s easier to strong-arm women to drop divorce cases, endure domestic violence, or even give up custody of their children. National law is steadily changing, as well. Concerned about rising divorce rates, Chinese legislators imposed a 30-day “cooling off” period on divorce proceedings in 2020. The result has been a dramatic decline in overall numbers of divorces, from 3.7 million (2020) to 2.1 million (2021)—a 43 percent decline in a single year alone.
Such trends could worsen yet further. Should authorities prioritize China’s demographic future as a political imperative under Xi, they might adopt explicit fertility targets and incorporate them into performance evaluation systems for local officials, fast-tracking the careers of those whose counties hit an annual TFR of 1.5. This is far from hypothetical. It is how Beijing managed anti-natalist population planning efforts during the decades of the one-child policy.
If China continues down this route, it could well experience a mirror image of the abuses associated with the one-child policy. Language in the 2021 government ten-year plan about “restricting non-medical abortions” could morph into new regulatory curbs on the ability of women to control their bodies—but this time around, to induce them to bear children, rather than barring them from doing so. The 2022 proposal by one Shanghai representative to China’s national legislature to encourage childbirth among graduate students was widely ridiculed by Chinese netizens—but could steadily mutate into insidious efforts to reduce the legal age of marriage and limit women’s access to higher education.
A BETTER APPROACH
Like the rest of East Asia, China could easily blow through vast quantities of time, energy, and money in an ultimately futile effort to shift fertility rates. Worse yet, faced with a rapidly darkening demographic picture, Beijing could easily make the mistake of yet further re-politicizing family, marriage, and childbirth as the next logical step in Xi’s vision of “reviving the Chinese nation”. The former would waste precious resources; the latter would set back gender issues several generations, pit the CCP against young Chinese people, particularly women, and ultimately worsen the underlying factors driving China’s rapid descent to low fertility.
Beijing should halt its ideological pivot against women, and instead move to address the consequences of rapid aging by raising retirement ages, reforming pension systems, and rethinking immigration practices to allow foreign labor to assist with eldercare—particularly for China’s rural poor.
Many of those steps would be politically difficult. For example, draft plans for hiking China’s retirement age from the unsustainably low levels set back in the 1950s—55 for women (50 for blue-collar female workers) and 60 for men—have circulated for nearly a decade. Fear of angering the retired cadres and urban elites who most benefit from these systems has prevented Beijing from taking meaningful action. Nonetheless, these are precisely the issues that other East Asian governments have been forced to grapple with as the rapidity and inevitability of the aging process they face has become apparent. When Taiwan finally rammed through its long-delayed pension reforms in 2018, tens of thousands of elderly pensioners protested outside the presidential palace for weeks to express their outrage at 10–20 percent cuts in their monthly checks.
Beijing cannot simply kick the can down the road, vainly hoping that pro-natalist initiatives will absolve authorities of the need to address such issues. Doing so will just make the eventual policy shifts sharper, more painful, and potentially more explosive.
Carl Minzner is a Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Professor at Fordham Law School.