HONG KONG (Reuters) – A Chinese health official has urged local governments to take “bold” steps to lower the cost of having babies and raising children to reduce the burden on families and boost fertility, a state-backed publication reported on Friday.
China’s population fell last year for the first time in six decades, data released last month showed, a historic turn that is expected to mark the start of a long period of decline.
In addition to that is the prospect of a rapidly aging population slowing the economy as revenues drop and government debt increases because of soaring health and welfare costs. Demographers warn that China might get old before it gets rich.
Yang Wenzhuang, director of Department of Population Monitoring and Family Development under the National Health Commission (NHC), stressed the importance of family support for improving the fertility rate, the publication the Paper reported.
Yang said that worries about money and career development among women were the main factors for people opting not to have babies, adding that precise policies were needed to improve the fertility level.
“Local governments should be encouraged to actively explore and make bold innovations in reducing the cost of childbirth, childcare and education” to promote the long-term balanced development of the population, Yang said.
China had to “firmly grasp the important window period of population development” during its 14th five-year plan which runs until 2025, to accelerate “the promotion of childbearing support”, he said.
Yang’s comments were published in the latest issue of NHC-managed magazine, Population and Health, the Paper said.
China was for decades preoccupied with the prospect of runaway population growth and imposed a strict one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 to keep numbers in check.
But now the population has started shrinking and India is about to become the world’s most populous country.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported a drop of some 850,000 people for a population of 1.41175 billion in 2022, the first decline since 1961, the last year of China’s Great Famine.
The birth rate last year was just 6.77 births per 1,000 people, down from a rate of 7.52 births in 2021 and marking the lowest birth rate on record.
Much of the demographic downturn is the result of the one-child policy as well as high education costs that have put many people off having more than one child or having any at all.
U.N. experts see China’s population shrinking by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.
Some steps are being taken.
Health authorities in the Sichuan province said in January they would allow unmarried people to raise a family and enjoy benefits reserved for married couples from Feb. 15.
Separately, some provinces including Shaanxi announced this week that they would give up to 5,000 yuan ($735.29) to sperm donors to boost sperm banks.