Baby Bust

China’s infamous compulsory birth control policies were eased last year, but Global Timesreporters are skeptical that this will yield many new babies: China appears to have undergone a permanent demographic transition.

When the country announced that it was further easing the family planning policy, allowing millions more women to have a second child, many were ecstatic.

The new policy allows couples to have two children if one spouse is an only child. Previously, having a second child was limited to parents who were both only children, situations where the first child was disabled, or in rural families when the first child was a girl.

Approximately 15 to 20 million couples will be eligible to have a second child under the new policy, according to Zhai Zhenwu, a professor of demograpics from the Renmin University of China.

However, the change of policy may not result in a new baby boom in China, at least not in a short term.

According to a survey by the People’s Daily, among the 6,729 respondents – each a member of a couple in which one spouse is an only child – one-third said “no” to whether they would have a second child and 15.8 percent said they hadn’t decided yet.

“The early study showed the parents in first-tier cities are less willing to have a second child than in second- and third-tier cities,” Zhai told the Global Times.

According to a list of the top-10 most expensive cities to raise a child until they graduate from college, which circulated online in July, Beijing numbered at the top with 2.76 million yuan ($450,000), just ahead of Shanghai’s 2.47 million yuan.

While many thought the data had been somewhat exaggerated, they admitted that raising a child in big cities in China is expensive. “We are labeled as house slaves or child slaves. One more child will inevitably make the burden heavier,” said Xiao Lei (pseudonym), a parent in Beijing.

Financial strain

Three years ago, Xiao pledged that he and his wife would have two children.

But although the prospect has seemingly come closer, they have realized that it remains further away than ever. With immense pressure from responsibilities to his extended family and the high expense of a child, the couple is in no position to care for another baby.

The couple is one example of how, despite the fact that many eligible parents wish for a second child, the recent announcement alone isn’t enough to make that dream a reality.

When his beaming wife told him the news, Xiao, 29, was silent. “Have you thought about who will take care of the baby?” he quietly asked a moment later.

Three years ago, Xiao’s mother was left half-paralyzed after a sudden brain hemorrhage. Even though his mother, a retired teacher, was able to get most of the medical fees reimbursed, it was still a heavy blow for Xiao.

“At that time, I felt incredibly stressed as I had no siblings to talk to about my misery. So I swore to have two children. I didn’t want my child to ever have that kind of feeling,” Xiao said.

Now, Xiao’s mother, still in recovery, needs the help of his father and a house-keeper for her day-to-day needs.

In March, Xiao’s wife gave birth to a baby son, but the couple has to leave the boy with Xiao’s parents-in-law as Xiao and his wife leave home for work at 7 am each day and return at about 8 pm.

Finances are also a key issue. The couple, with a total monthly income of 14,000 yuan ($2,298), would be hard pressed if they had another child. Their mortgage, as well as expenditure on formula and food, cost their family about 10,000 yuan each month.

Apart from affordability, various incentives offered to one-child families also suppress the desire to have an extra baby.

Changdao, a county with 32 islands in East China’s Shandong Province, didn’t witness a population boom despite allowing all fishermen to have a second child in 1985. Nevertheless, the county, with a population of 43,000, has seen negative growth in the population every year for the last eight years.

Many couples have not taken advantage of their right to have a second child as one-child families there can enjoy many privileges, such as priority in land allocation, preferential employment at local enterprises, obtaining more compensation in cases of land requisition, and preferential treatment when applying for relief fund.

Some media outlets have said that China should provide measures to help relieve the burden on ordinary parents who have a second child, in order to ensure that the new policy does not turn into a “privilege” for the rich.

Strong desire for larger families

Apart from the factors that deter people from having a second child, the demand is still strong from the traditional perspective.

“It will be very sad and lonely for an only child when get old. I myself have deep experience of this. My parents live in Shandong Province. Because my twin brother is there to attend to our parents, I can live at ease here in Beijing,” a 29-year-old media worker in Beijing, who asked to use the pseudonym Annie, told the Global Times.

Her husband is an only child and they have decided to have a baby to be a sibling to their 1-year-old daughter after the policy is carried out in Beijing.

“Cost is not a prime consideration. We will find ways to raise a child according to our financial means,” she said.

Li Zhenzhen, a high-school teacher in Liuzhou, South China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, who is preparing for pregnancy, was also happy to hear about the new policy.

“I was so worried that I would be disliked by my parents-in-law if I gave birth to a girl. Now, I can relax. The new policy will give me one more chance,” Li told the Global Times.

Li’s husband is from the countryside. Her parents-in-law have a strong desire for a grandson to carry on the family name.

In addition, she said two children will better help each other develop healthy personalities.

“I’m an only child. I always spent time alone at home when parents were at work, and I became very unsociable,” she said. “Besides, two children will share the risks, as well as the pressure from the expectations we place on them.”

Children of China’s only-child generation have long been tagged as little emperors, spoilt and self-centered. Findings published in the journal Science in January showed that the only-child adults in China are “less trusting, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic, and less conscientious.”

The right time for more kids?

Some experts commented that the new policy is “too little, too late” to solve the prominent problems of the aging society, gender imbalance and collapse of the demographic dividend – a large bulge in the workforce which is expected to give way to a bulge in the elderly.

According to a widely recognized calculation quoted by the 21st Century Business Herald, the country is likely to have about 1 million more births each year after the policy is rolled out, a slight increase on the current annual 16 million new births.

“We shouldn’t expect too much from the effects of the new policy. It’s impossible to reverse the trend of an aging society and the dwindling of demographic dividends,” Zhai said. “That’s an inevitable stage for every society. With social and economic development, the fertility rate naturally drops.”

Many countries including Germany, Russia, Singapore and Japan have seen negative growth in their populations despite implementing a series of birth incentive measures, such as tax exemptions and granting allowances. The average fertility rate of European countries was 1.59 per female in 2009.

However, Li Jianmin, a professor with the Institute of Population and Development at Nankai University, said the time for China to encourage people to have a second child hasn’t arrived yet.

“The population base is still so large. It’s risky to make drastic policy changes,” Li told the Global Times, adding that the incentives for one-child families couldn’t be rolled back within such a short time.

“But I believe that the government shall start taking actions to expand public services to facilitate child care,” he noted, citing the opening of more affordable community nurseries and kindergartens, upgrading medical services, and providing more paid vacation time to parents.

Local authorities will develop their own individual schedules for implementing the policy. Guangdong Province is expected to be the first to launch the policy and it’s estimated that one third of the provincial-level regions will have implemented the policy by 2014.

Both Zhai and Li said that eventually the one-child policy would be abolished entirely, and that this relaxation was the prelude to further easing. Li predicted that the country would have a policy of allowing all parents two children within five years.

Side effects

Although some commentators online expressed concerns that the new births would add pressure to worsening environmental pollution and shrinking resources, some food producers hailed the policy as it could potentially boost sales. The US is expected to see increases in its exports of “soybeans, pork and other products to feed the Asian giant,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Following the declaration of the policy, many stocks in companies that make baby formula, toys and pianos saw a spike in share prices, but stocks like the Wuhan-based Humanwell Healthcare, a large condom producer, saw a slight drop.

Meanwhile, some Net users forecast that a larger population would affect the government’s efforts to curb skyrocketing house prices.

Besides, some young couples have other worries. “If the parents are required to delay their retirement, who will care for our babies?” asked Cao Chang, 28, a resident in Beijing. “I think I have to be more cautious about deciding whether to have a second child unless I can afford to hire a qualified baby-sitter.”

The government is mulling delaying the retirement age to 65 across the country. In China, grandparents often take on the role of caregiver after their retirement.

A survey based on 25,000 questionnaire organized by Beijing Women’s Federation showed that grandparents take care of 80 percent of kids under 3 years old in Beijing.

Huang Jingjing