Analysis: More Chinese women are delaying or giving up having babies after zero-COVID ordeal

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  • China’s demographic downturn is showing signs of accelerating
  • China’s Population Shrinks in 2023, India Overtakes China
  • Women in China are the world’s least willing to have babies – survey
  • Strict COVID-19 guidelines complement the existing perverse incentives

HONG KONG, Aug 9 (Reuters) – Seeing Chinese authorities exercise extraordinary powers during a strict COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year changed Claire Jiang’s life plans: she no longer wants to have babies in China.

During the April-May lockdown, the “we are the last generation” hashtag briefly went viral on Chinese social media before being censored.

The phrase echoed the response of a man who was visited by authorities in hazmat suits and threatened to punish his family for three generations for failing to comply with COVID rules.

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“It really worked,” said Jiang, internalizing the man’s remark as her own response to the maternity question.

“I definitely don’t want my children to have to bear the uncertainty of living in a country where the government just comes out and does whatever it wants,” says the 30-year-old, who works in the media industry.

Studies have shown that pandemics and economic uncertainty have historically weighed on birth rates around the world.

But with regard to China in particular, its hard-line “zero-COVID” policy of promptly stamping out outbreaks with tight controls on people’s lives may have profoundly damaged their desire to have children, demographers say.

During the lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere, there have been numerous reports of people losing income or unable to access health care or food, or of authorities forcibly entering homes to take people, including the elderly and children, to quarantine centers.

Demographers say that people’s feelings of losing control of their lives to events like these can have a major impact on parenting goals.

“China is obviously one big government and one small family,” said prominent Chinese demographer Yi Fuxian. “China’s zero-COVID policy has resulted in zero economy, zero marriages, zero fertility.”

China’s National Health Commission and its Family Planning Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Chinese authorities have repeatedly said zero-COVID is necessary to save lives, noting the millions of deaths around the world, compared to just 5,226 officially reported in China since the pandemic began.

BAD SIGNS

A July United Nations report predicted that China’s population of 1.4 billion could shrink as soon as next year if India overtakes China as the world’s most populous country.

UN experts now expect China’s population to shrink by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline in their previous forecast in 2019.

A separate UN-China report said the pandemic is having a long-term impact on first births, with women citing financial insecurity, unfounded concerns about COVID vaccines affecting fetuses, and difficulties carrying a pregnancy and caring for an infant amid severe restrictions .

“Couples who may have been contemplating having a child next year have definitely put them off. Couples who were really unsure have postponed indefinitely,” said Justine Coulson, UN Population Fund representative in China.

Demographers say the number of new births this year will fall to record lows, falling below 10 million from last year’s 10.6 million babies – which were already 11.5% fewer than in 2020.

Official population data for 2022 is not expected until early next year, but some places in China have released worrying statistics in recent weeks.

Screening for birth defects — a reliable predictor of birth rates — in China’s third-most populous province, Henan, fell 9.5% year on year in the first six months.

Other cities reported double-digit declines in new birth certificates. Jiaozhou, a city of 1 million people in Shandong province, saw a 26% drop in the first six months. Hukou in Jiangxi province saw a 42% decline.

Company earnings statements also offer some clues: Milk formula maker Ausnutria Dairy (1717.HK), diaper maker Aiyingshi (603214.SS) and Cot and stroller manufacturer Goodbaby (1086.HK) are among the companies blaming China’s declining birth rates leading factors call for losses in the first half.

None of these numbers reflect the impact of lockdowns like those seen in Shanghai and elsewhere earlier this year.

But demographers say they are providing a glimpse of how COVID-19 restrictions impacted births in 2020 and 2021 and expect 2022 to be worse.

Demograph Yi collected data on infant tuberculosis vaccines, marriage registrations and searches for maternity and baby products on Baidu, China’s top search engine. He estimates that in 2021 and 2022 combined, COVID will result in 1 million fewer births, and 2023 could be even worse.

CAUSES

China, which enforced a one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, has officially admitted it is on the brink of a demographic downturn.

The fertility rate of 1.16 in 2021 was below the OECD standard of 2.1 for a stable population and among the lowest in the world.

Over the past year, authorities have introduced measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, improved health insurance, housing benefits, extra money for a third child and a crackdown on expensive private tuition. Continue reading

Still, Chinese women’s desire to have children is the lowest in the world, according to a survey by think tank YuWa Population Research released in February.

Demographers say the measures taken so far are not enough. They cite high costs of education, low wages and notoriously long hours as issues yet to be addressed, along with COVID policies and concerns about economic growth.

According to Peter McDonald, professor of demography at the University of Melbourne, a major cause of low birth rates is gender inequality, where China is ranked 102nd out of 146 countries by the World Economic Forum.

Jiahui Wu, a 25-year-old financial analyst, said society’s standards for being a good mother are strict.

“It seems a lot easier to be a good father,” she said. “I prefer a good career.”

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Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong, Casey Hall in Shanghai and Albee Zhang in Beijing; Additional reporting by Kiki Lo and Xiaoyu Yin; Edited by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Policy.

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