China’s Demographic Challenges
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China’s Demographic Challenges

Leading experts analyze newly translated scholarship on China’s demographic challenges and assess recommendations Chinese experts are advancing to address falling birth rates.

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Newly translated documents discussed in these analyses include:

  1. Decision by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on Improving Birth Policies to Promote Long-Term and Balanced Population Development
  2. Breaking the “Fertility Paradox” by Cai Fang, economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  3. Actively Tackle Negative Population Growth with Integrated Measures by Yin Yanlin, academic advisor at the China Finance 40 Forum and deputy director of the Economic Committee of the 14th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
  4. Interview with Wang Pei’an, Executive Vice President of China Family Planning Association: Promoting a Marriage and Childbearing Culture in the New Era to Every Household and Creating a Social Environment Friendly to Childbearing by Wang Pei’an, executive vice president of the China Family Planning Association and deputy director of the Committee on Population, Resources and Environment of the 13th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

Jump to commentary from:

Carl Minzner | Daniel Goodkind | Stuart Gietel-Basten | Zak Dychtwald

Carl Minzner

Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law

Births in China are in free fall: Totaling 17.86 million in 2016, they slid to 9.56 million in 2022, a roughly 50 percent decline in six years. Many Chinese officials and scholars once echoed the view (expressed in Cai Fang’s piece) that Beijing’s shift from a one- to two-child policy in 2016 (and from two to three in 2021) would produce both a “rebound” in births and a steady plateau at something closer to replacement-level births. No longer. There is a dawning realization that China, like the rest of East Asia, faces a descent to some of the lowest fertility rates in the world—dropping to 1.09 children per woman in 2022 compared to South Korea’s 0.78 and Taiwan’s 0.87.

Nor is Beijing’s response to these trends novel. The broad outlines of the policies set forth in the 2021 decision by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on “optimizing” fertility policies strongly resemble those launched decades ago by other East Asian governments. The white papers and population policies issued by Taiwanese and South Korean authorities in the early 2000s or Japanese officials in the 1990s—precisely as the extent of their own demographic challenges began to come into focus—display striking similarities with China’s plans, including to improve childcare services, provide better financial support for new parents, focus on maternal and infant health, and expand parental leave policies.

All of these are good. In part, such policies reflect the laudable goal, as Stuart Gitel-Bastien has pointed out, of removing economic and social barriers that might stand in the way of individuals realizing their own personal goals regarding family formation and childbirth. (Current policies—just like their counterparts elsewhere in East Asia—are nonetheless unlikely to have a significant impact on national fertility rates.)

But it is also important to listen for a different policy line other officials are advancing. Elements of it appear in the interview with Wang Pei’an, the executive vice president of the China Family Planning Association:

We advocate for marriage and childbearing at the appropriate age, which means encouraging young people to do what they should do at certain life stages: to date when it is time to date, to get married when it is time to marry, and to have children when it is time to have children. Balancing marriage and childbearing at the appropriate age with career development requires. . . respecting the societal value of childbearing, and fully recognizing the importance of young people marrying and having children at the right age.

Interview with Wang Pei’an, Executive Vice President of the China Family Planning Association: Promoting a Marriage and Childbearing Culture in the New Era to Every Household and Creating a Social Environment Friendly to Childbearing

Wang, one of the top leaders of the enforcement bureau previously charged with enforcing China’s harsh one-child limit, is now channeling new central party directives and pivoting in the direction of pronatalism. His is not the language of individual choice, nor of helping China’s youth recognize their own personal ambitions. Instead, it is an as-yet nascent framework for—yet again—telling Chinese youth what the state expects them to do with respect to marriage and childbirth. 

And that is a serious problem. It points to a steady re-politicization of some of the most private choices facing Chinese citizens. Having reasserted their grip in private enterprises, civil society, and academia, party authorities may now be grappling with whether—and how—to expand their influence over family life in the name of addressing China’s looming demographic challenges. Such a policy line risks exacerbating the underlying factors driving China’s descent to ultra-low fertility. And it carries potentially massive implications for citizens’ rights in China—particularly for Chinese women.

Daniel Goodkind

Daniel Goodkind is a senior demographer with over 30 years of experience in research and teaching on population dynamics in Asia for academic, government, and NGO audiences. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

In 1970, during the middle of the Cultural Revolution, Premier Zhou Enlai announced population growth ceiling targets for urban and rural areas, respectively. Many demographers (including myself) view this as the start of the most determined and protracted attempt to control population in human history. For me, the key document translated for Interpret: China was the 2021 decision by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the State Council to commit to “improving birth policies” by enacting sweeping pro-natal provisions. This stunning turnaround, issued as birth rates approached the ultra-low levels once considered ideal, brought an end to half a century of enforced anti-natalism.

My education about this campaign included a memorable task I was handed in 1998 upon first joining the International Programs Center of the U.S. Census Bureau. My predecessors who covered China for the Bureau, Judith Banister and John Aird, had assembled materials for their seminal books published in 1987 and 1990, respectively, in traditional steel file cabinets. My task was to cull materials to make space for other projects. After more than a week of reading through countless folders to decide what to save, what struck me most were the constant references to Thomas Malthus, whose eighteenth-century treatise on population featured China as an archetype of never-ending poverty and misery owing to uncontrolled fertility. Two hundred years later, Chinese policymakers clearly took notice. Assembled documents from the 1970s and 1980s at all administrative levels (and related media) repeated the view that population control was crucial to China’s hoped-for rapid rise.

In my view, my predecessors’ objective reading of these documents informed their (successful) prognostications that China had committed to Malthusian compulsion for the long haul, conclusions challenged by other leading experts at the time. Compared to other Chinese campaigns—such as the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Zero Covid, which all featured controls over migration (another demographic component)—the great Malthusian campaign lasted 51 years (1970–2021), more than three times longer than the other three combined.

And its demographic impact? The best known and most cited counterfactual model of what China’s birth rates would have been after 1970 absent Malthusian intervention, one that fully incorporates developmental factors, implies that China’s population was about 600 million people less than it would have been when the program ended in 2021 (all at ages 50 and below). Although debates continue over the extent to which its various phases and features contributed to that reduction—including one-child limits, a singular feature beginning around 1980 and often mistaken for the broader Malthusian program—the impact of the overall campaign was transformative by any objective standards.

The CCP and State Council’s decision acknowledges “legacy issues,” calling on authorities to honor promises of support to those who complied with the program’s regulations. Cai Fang’s essay also briefly notes the program’s contribution to lower birth rates. Yet no documents show any appetite for evaluating the extent to which the program reduced the population. The official estimate of 400 million averted births, formerly well publicized to emphasize the program’s success, has disappeared, now an unwelcome reminder that China’s demographic present is in part the result of its own past policy choices.

In another twist, Chinese authorities have joined an odd and unexpected alliance with other stakeholders—including many academic experts and the international family-planning community—who are similarly reluctant to acknowledge these massive numbers, each for their own reasons. The CCP and State Council decision anticipates a full blueprint of China’s newly pro-natal agenda in 2025. Ironically, that blueprint is being constructed without a rigorous accounting of its prior half-century of anti-natal intervention or its role in China’s rise to date.

Stuart Gietel-Basten

Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Khalifa University

Several different dynamics are on display in the “new” Chinese population policies and discussions thereon. Many policies focus on alleviating some of the direct challenges of an aging population, whether through pension, welfare, and health reform; development of the “silver economy”; or the development of gerontechnology. There is no doubt that such reforms are now urgent: for example, the pension systems in many provinces are now almost in crisis. Inevitably, reforms to offset some of the challenges of population aging will require increases in productivity and, in turn, harnessing the full potential of the current workforce. Reforms in these areas are being espoused at the moment, too.

However, it is the reforms about fertility that are currently receiving the most attention. For many observers around the world, the switch from strict birth-control policies (of which the “one-child policy” was a component) toward what appears to be a robust pronatalist agenda may appear jarring. I observed in 2015 that with so many of its regional neighbors adopting pronatalist policies, it was perhaps inevitable that China would follow suit. In fact, though China certainly had the “strongest” anti-natal policies in place from the 1970s onward, the apparatus and rhetoric of family planning across the region during this period was often equally comprehensive.

So, is China now espousing a pronatalist policy? And will it be successful?

First, there is clearly a growing government-sponsored apparatus being rolled out to support families: kindergartens and other childcare facilities; financial support; reproductive, maternal, and neonatal health services; assisted reproductive technologies; improved maternity leave and maternity insurance; and efforts to promote equity and enhance the rights of women and parents.

However, the introduction of these policies alone does not automatically render a family policy system “pronatalist.” This depends on their framing and the motivation. If these policies are designed only (or at least primarily) to get women to have more babies so the country can meet some national target, then this is clear pronatalism. Such approaches have largely failed elsewhere in their goal of increasing the desire to have more children, merely affecting the timing of births. However, if these are bottom-up policies implemented to help people achieve their own reproductive aspirations by offsetting some of the challenges and burdens of childbearing and enabling a better work-life balance, they are not pronatalist per se, as they support all people in meeting their full potential.

Here, though, there is a distinct lack of clarity. On the one hand, one of the “primary principles” set out in the 2021 Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and State Council document on “Improving Birth Policies to Promote Long-Term and Balanced Population Development” is distinctly bottom-up, stating that the policies should be:

Centered on People: In accordance with the people’s hopes and expectations, we must actively and prudently improve birth policies and ensure that they are well coordinated and fair; meet the public’s diverse birth-related needs and consider marriage, childbearing, child-rearing, and education in a holistic manner; and effectively address the public’s concerns, so as to unleash potential fertility and promote family harmony and happiness.

Decision by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council on Improving Birth Policies to Promote Long-Term and Balanced Population Development

Elsewhere, the policy includes the goals that, by 2035, “the standard of services associated with childbearing, childcare, and child-rearing will have satisfied the people’s needs for a better life; families’ capacity for development will have significantly improved; and even more substantial progress will have been made in all-round human development.” Again, this is distinctly bottom-up and aligned with International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) principles that say governments should take a role in enabling people to meet national aspirations for their own sake.

On the other hand, the same document later clearly includes the goals that by 2025, China will see “the fertility level moderately increasing,” and by 2035, “fertility will have reached a more ideal level.” Indeed, some commentators have linked the announcement to limit abortions occurring “for non-medically necessary purposes” to such a pronatalist drive. However, this has not been made explicit in government documents. Such mixed messages are echoed in the 14th Five-Year Plan (Article XLV), which talks about many very good policies to support families and develop inclusivity—but under the title “We Will Promote the Attainment of an Adequate Fertility Level.”

This might seem to be just linguistic pedantry, but framing really is everything. Across the low-fertility world, people are struggling to start (and grow) a family while facing uncertain work, high levels of youth unemployment, unaffordable housing, long working hours, limited childcare, and high expectations and costs regarding children’s education, all packaged up in a highly unequal, gendered world. The risks associated with dating, marriage, and childbearing are tremendously high.

Evidence from around the world indicates people are more likely to make a decision that involves taking a risk—and not just in choices relating to family formation—if they feel the risk is being shared and there is some support behind them to give them the best chance possible. Most importantly, this support needs to (at least appear to) be consistent and genuine. Parents in countries with high rates of happiness (and, indeed, relatively higher rates of fertility) tend to see the government, employers, and other stakeholders as supporting partners who have a genuine vested interest in helping them meet their aspirations. These policies are in sync with and responsive to people’s underlying goals, hopes, and desires, but they are also consistent and long-standing.

Meanwhile, countries with many family policy interventions that seem designed to convince people to go against their instincts and have more children, especially to meet some abstract national goal, tend to exhibit lower levels of happiness and limited responses to such interventions, especially regarding the number of children people have. It is also the case that policies in such countries “chop and change” on a regular basis, which further undermines their credibility.

In this context, it is genuinely laudable that the Chinese government is making people-centered policy a core principle of these interventions related to fertility. However, rather than coming back to a target-driven motivation of raising fertility, the government could instead consolidate this people-centered position and emphasize that it recognizes the challenges of family formation in the twenty-first century as well as the validity of people’s aspirations in work, family, and life. Family policy should be in sync with these aspirations, supporting and enabling them. As it happens, the fact that people tend to want more children than they have suggests that such bottom-up policies could increase the fertility rate anyway, but this is a secondary consideration. Indeed, such bottom-up policies treat the fertility rate as a residual or an artifact.

Worldwide, exhortations to have children for the country to meet some national target rarely play a major role in decision-making regarding family formation. Instead, people make decisions about childbearing in the context of myriad moving parts such as housing, work, relationships, health, age, the economy, and security—as well as personal views and ideologies (for example, regarding climate change). Ultimately, most people who choose to get into relationships and have children do so because they feel it is the right choice for them at that time given their broader set of aspirations in life. Knowing these aspirations (i.e., understanding what people want) is the first step toward building policies that support and enable them.

Zak Dychtwald

Founder and CEO, Young China Group

China’s first generation mostly comprised of single children are now having children themselves. After China’s one-child policy was disbanded and all families could have two children in 2016, I traveled the country asking Chinese millennials whether they would want to have a second child. The answers were uniformly the same: no, because a second child would make both children half as competitive.

The competition among young people for scarce resources—from exclusive grade-school berths to college to employment to real estate—means that parents are forced to be practical when considering what is best for their children and best for themselves. Consistently, that answer is single children or no children.

The hopefulness of these articles goes against the grain of prevailing sentiment among young parents and couples in China. Though the modest financial incentives proposed may attract poorer cross-sections of the population, they do not make a dent in the heady costs of first- and second-tier city life. Perhaps most importantly, they minimize the following social factors:

  • In high-cost urban China, middle-class families see having a second child as irresponsible to both children’s future. Demographers have long known that urbanization is the best form of birth control. Although more children are an asset in rural areas—where they help work the land, look after siblings, and take care of the old—in urban settings they turn into a primary cost center.

China’s urban cost-to-income ratio is especially onerous for young parents. The average expense of an urban apartment in China is 29.8 times average gross income, compared to 5.4 times in the United States. In cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, the ratio is over 40. (A “healthy” price-to-income ratio is seen as 2.6.)

To have a second child in an urban setting is often seen as irresponsible to the children—“losing at the starting line” in the race of life, as it is often described in China. It is an issue with which the government is familiar. The perceived “unmeritocratic” cost of education in China is what led to the now infamous crackdown on after-school training centers in 2021, which reflect a growing public upset concerning the need for large, extra investment in a child’s education for them to be competitive in the university system.

  • Many new urban parents are single children themselves, and they do not believe they missed out on siblings. Most young parents I have interviewed over the years do not view their childhood as being worse because they are their family’s only child. Instead, many point to that funneling of resources—from four grandparents down to two parents to one child—as the source of their competitive advantages in the world. From family pooling money for tutors or study abroad to borrowing for the down payment on an apartment, the ability of parents to provide focused financial support for one child is now a feature of the Chinese family system, not a bug.
  • A second child means double the pressure on parents. As millennials become parents, they do not age out of their worldview. One critical cornerstone of this generation’s perspective compared with their parents’ is that life ought to be enjoyed, not just endured. There is very little social evidence in China that a second child increases happiness for parents. However, that type of social evidence can in part be engineered by the government through ongoing campaigns. Perhaps the largest source of pressure is grandparents. China’s 4–2–1 crisis means that as much as parents need to spend on their children to compete, they also need to look after their own aging parents. The reality of “上有老,下有小” (“Aging parents above, children below”) causes enormous strain.

The case for increasing the birth rate, however, is not completely hopeless. Urbanization choices are changing. Covid-19 affected people’s willingness to forego quality of life to live in a first-tier city, and many elected (or were financially forced) to move to second- and third-tier cities, where they found a higher quality of life at a slower, more manageable pace. While the suburbanization of China remains unlikely, at least in the way we see in Western Europe and the United States, the willingness of young people to live in second- and third-tier cities is a big step in alleviating the brutal urban competition that forces this financial practicality on families. Coupled with more aggressive financial or real estate incentives, boosting dropping birth rates is not out of the question.

However, as those fighting climate change have found, curbing human nature is nearly impossible. It feels much more likely that China’s attempts at prevention will fail and that its solutions to a shrinking workforce—automation, digitalization, and artificial intelligence—will play a larger role in rebalancing lost productivity. 

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Cite this Page

Carl Minzner, Daniel Goodkind, Stuart Gietel-Basten and Zak Dychtwald, "China’s Demographic Challenges," Interpret: China, Center for Strategic and International Studies, November 28, 2023, last modified November 28, 2023,

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