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China People's Congress

China vows to arrest demographic issues with new policy

NPC discusses revisions to country's 'hukou' household registration system

A girl at a school for children of migrant workers on the outskirts of Beijing. Due to China's "hukou" internal passports, parents in search of well-paying urban jobs often leave behind public services, including public schooling, they are entitled to as residents of their home villages.    © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- Chinese lawmakers attending the National People's Congress in Beijing have flagged the country's low birthrate and aging population, urging the government to accelerate policy fixes over the next five years.

For some, the existing limit of two children per couple, which in 2016 replaced the one-child policy, has been ineffective at lifting the birthrate.

"The overall result of the two-child policy has not met expectations," NPC delegate Zhang Quanshou, a lawmaker from Henan Province, told the news outlet. "In the long run, the low birthrate will inevitably bring many negative effects to the national development of the country."

The number of newborns in 2020 fell 15%, to 10.035 million, according to preliminary data released last month by the Ministry of Public Security. A clearer demographic picture will emerge in April, when authorities unveil results of the 2020 national census.

In announcing 2021 policy measures last Friday, Premier Li Keqiang vowed to implement a national strategy focusing on child and elderly care. The government will propose an "appropriate birthrate" and raise the average life expectancy by one year.

This appears to suggest that the fertility rate target of 1.8 -- the figure refers to the average number of children a woman will have in her lifetime -- will be scrapped. It was set five years ago and was to cover the 10-year period starting in 2020.

A government agency last month announced a proposal to ease birth restrictions in the country's northeast, one of the poorest and least inhabited regions. Zhang, the Henan Province lawmaker, called for the birth limits to be removed completely in regions with especially low births.

But removing all remaining policies that limit births per household is unlikely to reverse the nation's fertility crisis, Eurasia Group said in a note last month. China is going through a similar phenomenon that Japan began experiencing in the 1990s and South Korea in the 2000s: The baby decline its leaders decry is being driven by socioeconomic factors, the risk adviser says. "These include worsening housing affordability across major cities, the financial burden of schooling amid intense educational competition, and mounting household debt," the report notes.

"I have been turned down several times simply for not owning a house yet," Gu Baoqiang told Nikkei Asia. The 33-year-old native of Anhui Province who has been working in Shanghai for four years wishes to settle down with a family. He is a salesperson at a mid-size property developer and has attended matchmaking events in past years, but with little luck.

"Some girls here expect you to have two apartments and a car," he said. "I have none and I cannot afford to buy a house in Shanghai."

Most of Gu's classmates back in his hometown have already settled down and have kids.

Marriage registrations plummeted to 8.13 million couples in 2020, from a record high of 13.47 million in 2013, according to a study by Evergrande Research Institute, Tsinghua University. The high cost of raising children and a preference for personal freedom were among the reasons cited for the drop. The average marriage age has increased to 25 through 29, up from 20 through 24, the study released last month says.

China's controversial one-child policy was introduced in the early 1980s as part of social-engineering policies meant to control population growth. It succeeded in bringing down birthrates but was also subject to criticism for the harsh disciplinary measures that were used in its name. In addition, the country's preference for male heredity resulted in forced abortions.

As more members of the one-child generation enter their 40s, they are managing so-called 4-2-1 reversed pyramid family structures -- four aging parents being taken care of by their only children who are married and have only one child themselves.

"For families with a single child, the structure is indeed a realistic problem," Kong Falong, another NPC delegate told state news outlet China Youth Daily. "Many families are facing greater economic and psychological pressure due to the shortage of high-quality elderly care supplies."

Kong added that the issue was discussed at the NPC, which will end tomorrow, with delegates urging the government to relax China's hukou household registration system. Kong proposed that parents with one child should be allowed to settle down with their child in his or her city of residence.

The hukou system, introduced in the 1950s, is designed to control migration from rural to urban areas, and the social benefits that come with such moves. Gu, the real estate salesman, is registered as an Anhui resident even though he works and lives in Shanghai. Hukou limits his access to Shanghai's welfare services.

Despite this disadvantage, Gu has not given up hope for meeting a life partner. "My parents are aging," he said, "and I want them to have grandchildren."

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