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Society

China's baby crisis deepens as pandemic pushes births down 15%

Financial anxiety from COVID accelerates downward trend

Women walk with children in Wuhan: The high cost of raising children in Chinese cities discouraged many households from doing so even before the coronavirus outbreak.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- Registered births in China fell sharply last year as the coronavirus pandemic sapped household incomes and added fuel to economic worries, accelerating the worrisome decline in China's birthrate.

Births recorded in the household registration system slid 15% to 10.04 million in 2020, data released Monday by the Ministry of Public Security shows. While a more accurate number of births last year is not due out until spring, the total likely will drop below the 2019 figure of 14.65 million -- itself the lowest tally since 1961.

Financial uncertainty after the COVID-19 outbreak, compounding existing concerns about the high cost of child rearing in cities, likely led some households to postpone having children. Inflation-adjusted disposable income per capita rose just 2.1% last year, well below the pre-coronavirus growth rate of around 6%.

But the trend predates the pandemic.

Births nationwide jumped in 2016 after China ended the one-child policy introduced in 1979 and allowed all households to have a second child. But the tally has fallen each year through 2019.

That the relaxed fertility policy has not produced the intended result worries China's sociologists and economists about the faster-than-expected aging of the population.

Cai Fang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the first demographic turning point leading to an economic slowdown has already occurred, when China's working-age population peaked in 2010.

A second turning point, resulting in a demand-side shock, likely will occur in 2025 when China's total population peaks, Cai said at a virtual conference in December organized by the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute.

Structural changes in China's population can alter the country's position in the global economy.

"As the demographic transition goes forward, we [continue] losing the conventional comparative advantage in manufacturing," Cai said. "So the trade balance will be improved eventually."

The Ministry of Public Security data differs from total births. Children should be recorded in the household registration system within a year after birth, and the ministry's figures do not include births recorded in the following year.

China is far from the only country to see a coronavirus-driven drop in births. Takuya Hoshino of the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute estimates 848,000 births in 2020 for an already graying Japan, 2% less than the previous year's record low of roughly 865,000. The figure is expected to decline further this year, to 776,000.

Additional reporting by Alex Fang in New York.

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