Shenzhen, China – On a stifling June afternoon in a quiet corner of Lianhuashan Park, in the heart of China’s high-tech showcase city of China, Mr. Ling, 25, is engaged in the decidedly low-tech activity of Lianhuashan. browse ads from potential partners.
Men receive light blue cards, women light pink, grouped by decades of birth. The letters hang rigid and impersonal from hundreds of cables from the “Matchmaking Corner” circular structure built by the municipal government, whose offices are within walking distance.
Like many younger men and women living in Shenzhen without official residence in the city, Ling has chances to find a wife, start a family, and stay in the city long-term who are thin, even if she prefers to take this of course.
“The biggest problem is working and having enough money and getting a house,” he said. “I have a few friends who worked in Shenzhen, but who have now moved to other areas. The cost of living puts too much pressure on them. “
Ling’s Hukou, China’s internal family registration system, links most of its medical and social insurance, as well as the education of its future children, to a rural village in Shandong Province, far to the north. , the place of his birth.
Ling, who did not want her full name to be used to protect her privacy, works as a real estate agent. But the job involves little more than answering the phones, accompanying potential buyers to properties, with little chance of upward mobility.
As China allows couples to have up to three children, it is becoming increasingly clear that the government will have to address the needs and concerns of people like Ling who would like to raise families and have children, but are pressured by the lack of education. living costs and barriers to movement such as the hukou system: realities of life in China that deter many working couples from contemplating the idea of having more than one child, let alone two or three.
“How can we take care of it again?”
An online survey distributed in early May in China showed that just over half of young people do not want to have a child, let alone a second or third.
One of the reasons is the cost of buying a home. Most men consider that they need property before proposing marriage, so it is an important premarital barrier for a man and his extended family, which often helps pay for that first house. Others included concerns about who would care for children, the high cost of education and extracurricular programs, point systems in first- and second-tier cities that determine whether or not a child can enter a local school, and change mindsets among younger people who want to pursue individual dreams that don’t revolve around starting a family.
Women, who have most of the care of their children, are also less and less willing to have a second child after they run out to take care of the first.
One of the remarks that circulated on Chinese social media in the hours after China announced the move to a three-child policy on the last day of May was that of the couple who said, “We already have to take care of a family. of eight, how can we take Do you care nine? ”
Translation: Working-age couples in China often have to take care of themselves, as well as two groups of parents who do not have much savings income or pension plans, if any, in addition to children they already have.
While the parents of these workers often help with the home and care of their children, the costs associated with health as they age, along with the costs of raising their children, are a huge burden.
China’s fertility rate slowed to 1.3 births per woman in 2020 and looks set to hover around that unless Beijing authorities ease the pressure on working families. Although these authorities say efforts are being made to improve policies related to maternity leave and insurance, as well as to strengthen support for fiscal and housing policies, most parents working in the China has no hopes.
The benefits deployed after the one-child policy was facilitated in 2015 were unable to reduce burdens and significantly increase the birth rate.
Chang Qingsong, an associate professor at the Population Research Institute of Xiamen University, believes the government should go further and remove the boundaries altogether so that families can decide whether or not they want children.
“The Chinese government could relax the limit on the number of children a family can have and provide maximum support to families who have the capacity and conditions to have more babies,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Instead of prescribing how many children they can have, the government should reduce the burdens on families to increase their intention to give birth,” he said. “Predictably, even if couples were allowed to have a third child, most couples would not.”
Move the needle
Failed or stagnant birth rates may not mean much at this time, but as China’s population ages rapidly, economic growth could be successful as the workforce will shrink in 15 years, according to a note from Yue Su, chief economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
The new three-child policy could also have short-term negative impacts on women, she wrote, with companies assuming women would want more children and could choose to hire men to dodge maternity costs and time off. work.
Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State University, said it seems the three-child policy is more than a reaction to recent census data showing that China has a rapidly aging population and that it is it is rapidly approaching its maximum population. , but a detailed policy to try to deal with the pressures could come later.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they pivoted on any special credits that people get for having more children or other policies that facilitate the challenges of having more children,” he told Al Jazeera.
For example, Chinese authorities apparently encourage some regions to judge parental leave plans.
“I could imagine China could build more homes that are friendly to larger families and things like that,” he said. “The Chinese state has a much bigger involvement in the economy and therefore could move the needle a bit.”
For Scott Rozelle, a development economist and co-director of Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Program, China’s demographic problem has nothing to do with quantity, but with quality.
Much of this lack of quality in the workforce is due to the fact that China has not been able to provide education to all young people up to secondary school, particularly in rural areas.
Without raising the education levels of children in rural areas and re-educating rural hukou holders who did not come to high school, simply having more children will not solve China’s labor problems and prevent them from being in a center. . income trap like Mexico or Brazil.
“The quality of people really matters in this post-industrial world,” Rozelle said. “If you don’t have high school, you won’t do well in online sales, you won’t be able to start a business.”
Recent research that Rozelle has conducted shows initial indications that the decline in the birth rate comes largely from rural China, mainly because women there do not feel that their families can support more than one or two. children.
“My hypothesis is that the big drop in fertility comes basically from rural China in the last ten years,” he told Al Jazeera. “Women now have much more decision-making power over critical decisions like family size.”
China is currently implementing a major rural revitalization policy across the country, but most are focusing on agriculture and infrastructure programs, rather than education, health, and social welfare.
Rozelle said surveys of rural families over the years find that while they appreciate many of these infrastructure upgrades, most are reduced to one thing: education.
“It gets where we don’t need large amounts of labor to run our companies, what we need is high quality labor,” Rozelle said. “So rural revitalization should include education? Absolutely.”