January 29, 2024
BEIJING – At six months pregnant with a boy, actress Ma Qian is the envy of her girlfriends, many of whom want to have “dragon babies” as the auspicious year rolls around after a 12-year cycle.
She and her husband wasted no time after throwing their wedding banquet in July 2023 to try for a child.
“It was all planned. As soon as we signed our papers, I started getting ready,” said the 27-year-old, who lives in Beijing with her 30-year-old husband, an investment manager.
China’s birth rate has been on a worrying decline for seven straight years, despite efforts by the government to persuade its young people to have more babies. The Year of the Dragon, however, has traditionally meant a baby bump for the country.
“Although the dragon symbol doesn’t have a personal meaning for either of us, we have been taught from childhood that Chinese people are the descendants of the dragon,” said Ms Ma, who added that she has many friends who are now trying to conceive.
Majority ethnic Chinese societies, including Singapore and Taiwan, also tend to have baby booms during dragon years, as those born under this zodiac sign are believed to bear desirable traits such as intelligence, leadership and good fortune.
China’s birth rate in the last Dragon Year, in 2012, increased from 13.27 per cent the year before to 14.57 per cent, before dipping to 13.03 per cent in 2013.
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Experts say there will also be more babies from couples who had put off getting married or having children during the Covid-19 pandemic, which ended in 2023.
But expectations are lower this time around.
“Yes, I think there might be a rise, but it may be very moderate,” said Assistant Professor Mu Zheng, a sociologist who studies China’s fertility at the National University of Singapore.
“Childbearing is still a big decision, involving extensive considerations. The auspicious connotations of the Year of the Dragon may motivate those who intend to have children to act on it, but for those who are reluctant, it may not be very effective.”
The blip will not be enough to reverse the rapid slide in the country’s birth rate, which its leaders have tried to stem with fertility-friendly policies ranging from extended maternity leave to cash rewards.
In 2022, China’s population declined for the first time since the 1960s, with India overtaking its lead to become the most populous nation in the world in 2023.
Statistics released in January 2024 showed its population continuing to dwindle. Deaths outnumbered births by two million in 2023, with just nine million babies born in a country of 1.4 billion people.
Its total fertility rate is now estimated to be about 1.0, well below the 2.1 that is required to maintain a stable population.
It is a crisis that is plaguing other Asian countries, such as South Korea, Singapore and Japan, which have total fertility rates ranging from 0.72 to 1.26.
China’s births have plunged in recent years – dropping dramatically by 50 per cent since 2016, the year after Beijing abandoned its 35-year-old one-child policy, and even after it revised it to a three-child scheme in 2021.
Last year’s birth rate was just 6.39 per cent, the lowest on record since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
A dwindling population will pose a challenge to China’s economic growth, especially as the country turns its focus to making domestic demand a key economic driver.
In a study by European think-tank Bruegel in Oct 2023, researchers Alicia García-Herrero and Xu Jianwei found that China’s overall labour force is likely to shrink only modestly up until 2035, as the urban labour force, which is more productive than rural employment, continues to grow.
But China’s shrinking population could shave off 1.4 per cent of its gross domestic product growth annually after 2035, when the declining fertility rate begins to have an impact on its working-age population, and urbanisation tapers off.
Automation and artificial intelligence could help boost productivity and alleviate the problem, but there has been no evidence of this yet, said the researchers.
According to Dr Mu, the problems behind China’s population decline are threefold.
There is overwhelming and still growing pressure and costs to be competitive, both as an individual and a parent, she said.
There is also the “more individualistic perspectives regarding achievements and life choices, where responsibilities for children may be perceived as burdensome and countering an individual’s other goals”.
And finally, the persistent gender norms within marriage, despite women’s advancing socioeconomic profiles, “particularly generate reluctance to enter into marriage and childbearing among well-educated women”, she said.
Effectively boosting the fertility rate will come at a high cost and requires significant systemic changes to support parents’ work-life balance and right the gender inequality within marriage and the family, said Dr Mu.
Hebei-born engineer Wang Bing, 31, whose son was born on Jan 18, said the increasing cost of living, coupled with stagnating wages, made him think twice about starting a family.
China’s hukou, or population registration, system places restrictions on migrant workers using certain public services, especially in large cities like Beijing, where Mr Wang works.
“If the government can provide more conducive conditions, I might think about heeding the call to have more than one child,” he said, naming housing subsidies and access to education and healthcare as the main incentives.
And while the Dragon Year is traditionally fruitful, some couples might think twice about adding to the bumper crop, which could invite more competition for themselves and their children.
When Chengdu-born Liu Xi, 53, was pregnant in 2000, she endured long lines at the hospital to get pre-natal check-ups and even during the birth of her daughter.
“That year was the millennium year and also the Year of the Dragon. Pregnant women were everywhere, all around me,” said Madam Liu, who works in the finance sector.
Her daughter has had to go through much of her school life facing intense competition. Classes were bigger and resources were stretched. Parents may not want to put their children through such pressure and may avoid having a child this year, she said.
It was a thought that crossed the actress Ms Ma’s mind, too, but only fleetingly, when she and her husband talked about starting a family.
“Strangely, we have inexplicable confidence and no fear of competition. Competition of all kinds exists in life and is a necessary lesson in life. It will make our baby stronger,” she said.