While China is the world’s most populous country, children there are a treasured and increasingly scare resource

Scrapping the one-child policy was meant to encourage bigger families, but many people in China are choosing not to have kids at all

Solana Mall in Chaoyang Park, one of Beijing’s most expensive neighbourhoods, was teeming with children on Friday afternoon as parents took them on a last-minute shopping spree in advance of Chinese New Year. Among the treats on offer was a small, one-seater, vintage-style bumper car for RMB46,800 (€6,375), about three times the median monthly salary in the city.

Swaddled in designer-branded clothing as they skated on a miniature ice rink in the middle of the mall, these were among China’s most pampered children. But throughout the world’s most populous country, children are not only a treasured resource but an increasingly scarce one.

China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said this week that the country’s population shrank last year for the first time since 1961 and the end of the Great Famine. Demographers believe the drop of 850,000 to 1.41 billion marks the beginning of an extended period of population decline, with India expected to overtake China this year as the world’s most populous country.

“Looking at the long-term trends, due to the low fertility rate and the continuous decline in the number of women of childbearing age, the number of new births will remain in a period of rapid decline,” Beijing’s YuWa Population Research Institute said in a report this week.

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“By 2050, if substantial and powerful fertility support measures are not taken, the number of new births in China will drop to 7.73 million, a third of India’s, and it will plunge to 3.06 million in 2100, only a quarter of India’s.”

The decline has big economic implications for China as the working-age population, defined as those between 16 and 59, is also falling and YuWa expects it to shrink by 23 per cent by 2050. China’s population is ageing faster than that of its competitor the United States, the world’s biggest economy, which expects to see its population increase as China’s shrinks.

If parenting requires me to sacrifice my own quality of life, I don’t want to do it

—  Wu Lin

Population growth has been one of the drivers of China’s dramatic economic expansion in recent decades but the one-child policy in force from 1980 to 2015 imposed a demographic brake. The policy was enforced most strictly in cities, while in rural areas parents whose first child was a girl were often allowed to have a second.

The rule was changed in 2015 to allow for two children and relaxed further in 2019 to become a three-child policy. But it has left China with not only a declining population but a gender imbalance of almost 35 million more men than women, according to the 2020 census.

Scrapping the one-child policy was meant to encourage bigger families but they have continued to shrink as the number of marriages declines and many people choose not to have children at all.

Qin Kan says he has known since he was a child himself that the fatherhood was not for him and nothing he has seen since has changed his mind. He doesn’t want the responsibility of raising a child and he is unwilling to bear the financial cost of being a parent.

Now 41 years old and in a highly paid job, he no longer faces pressure from his family or conflicts with romantic partners about having children.

“It only happened once. I didn’t want to have a kid but she did and she wanted to get married. After that I decided to make my thoughts clear before a relationship gets serious so there would be no more disagreements,” he says.

Qin says he knows a lot of people who don’t want children either. Wu Lin, who is 26 years old, says that half of her friends share her resolution not to have a child. The act of childbirth itself, which she believes causes “irreversible damage” to the mother is one factor but so is the cost of bringing up children.

“I think that having enough money is the basic prerequisite for raising children, and it is important for the quality of life of parents themselves as well as the growth and development of children,” Wu says. “If parenting requires me to sacrifice my own quality of life, I don’t want to do it.”

Raising a child to the age of 18 is more expensive in China than almost anywhere in the world, costing an average of RMB485,000 – the equivalent to 6.9 times the country’s per capita GDP. This compares to 4.1 times per capita GDP in the United States and 3.6 times in Germany.

My mother thinks my happiness is the most important thing and she supports me whether I choose to have a child or not

—  Wu Lin

The biggest costs are for preschool childcare, which one mother says cost her RMB8,000 (€1,090) a month and school tuition fees and after-school activities, which can cost the equivalent of thousands of euros each year. Last year, the Chinese government banned paid private tutoring of subjects, including maths and English, in an attempt to ease the financial burden on parents.

Hao Xia, a 47-year-old human resources manager with a 17-year-old son, says parents had good reasons for wanting to pay for extra lessons.

“I think the policymaker should understand the fundamental reason for seeking private tuition. Going to a good university is a dream of many families in China,” Hao says.

“Unfortunately, each year, only a very limited number of students have a chance, which has caused very fierce competition. Just prohibiting private tuition won’t solve the root cause of this issue.”

Talking to parents, the pressure on their children to do well at school is a worry that comes up time and again. Li Qiang, a 35-year-old plumber with a 10-year-old son, says he used to worry about his child getting sick but now he is more concerned about his exam results.

Despite the pressure to do well at exams, Li welcomed the ban on private tuition, saying he never considered it as an option for his son.

“The child has spent the whole day at school. Even if it didn’t cost money for tutoring, I don’t want my son joining after-school classes,” Li says.

The cost of housing, particularly in the biggest cities, is making it harder for couples to have children and the YuWa Population Research Institute this month called for housing subsidies for families with children. It said the cost of having a baby should be reduced, along with the price of childcare and education.

The minimum age for marriage in China is 22 for men and 20 for women, and the institute said reducing it to 18 would encourage more couples to marry rather than cohabiting. But research for the Communist Youth League in October 2021 found other reasons behind young people’s reluctance to marry.

These included the individualistic pursuit of personal value; a lack of time and space in modern life to find a suitable partner; the idea that it is better to do without than to settle for second best; and a rational aversion to the risk of marriage given the high cost of raising a family.

People who choose not to have children are under less familial pressure than before and few were worried about who would care for them when they are old. Wu says she will support herself with an old-age pension or by remortgaging her flat and her mother will be on her side in the meantime, regardless of her choice.

“My mother thinks my happiness is the most important thing and she supports me whether I choose to have a child or not,” she says.