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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Where’s the Money?

America should draw a lesson from China’s failing birthrate-boosting efforts.

Family,Enjoying,Chinese,Meal,In,Traditional,Chinese,Clothing
(XiXinXing/Shutterstock)

During the Chinese famine of 1958–1961, the country’s total births never fell below 10 million. Today, with a population double that size, the country’s total births are the same. In the face of a rapidly aging and shrinking populace, the Chinese Communist Party is now actively urging Chinese women to have an average of three babies, raising this benchmark for the second time since 2016, when the one-child policy officially ended. 

Two years into this three child policy, fertility is still at an all-time low. One reason for this may be the route the Chinese Communist Party’s Family Planning Association has chosen to enforce it, which, as the Wall Street Journal reported Monday, has been largely through art, education, and gimmicks in place of more straightforward financial incentives. A local government outside Beijing has apparently installed two statues depicting families, each with two parents and three children, as a means of shaping the cultural imagination. Meanwhile, party officials have begun encouraging fathers to be more present in their children’s lives. They also hand out free rice cookers and water bottles to mothers and young women who attend pro-family conferences as a means of encouraging domesticity. 

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This has not been enough to change women’s minds, or at least not right away. Unfortunately, the country doesn’t have much time to troubleshoot with free wonton wrappers and three-kid television shows. When the CCP officially ended the one-child policy in 2016, the country’s total births were at approximately 18 million per year. Less than a decade later, they are just over half of that, and total fertility is well below replacement rates for the population. 

China began backpedaling the one-child policy in late 2015, in an attempt to boost economic growth. Wang Pei'an, chief of the Family Planning Association, assured the public China would not face a population shortage “in 100 years,” but the real shortage was and is one of youth: Demographers predict one in every three Chinese will be over the age of 60 years by 2050, meaning there will not be enough working age Chinese to sustain the population. Wang advocated just two children per couple, and Chairman Xi Jinping estimated this would grow the economy by 7 percent annually. 

Instead, fertility has continued to plummet. The nation’s total fertility rate, defined as the number of children a woman has over her lifetime, has already fallen below that of Japan to 1.33, considered a “lowest low” number. Now, Wang is championing three babies with as much vigor as he defended the one-child policy in the past. 

It’s not hard to imagine why this is happening. After nearly four decades of high abortion rates—some forced on women, even those with no children, as in the “Hundred Days, No Child” campaign—Chinese culture is being expected to flip on a dime. Women who were raised as only children, whose every peer had no sibling, and whose parents likely had no siblings, are suddenly expected to change their understanding of what is normal. To these would-be parents, the idea of having three kids is, plain and simple, strange. 

This new normal affects family structure as well as family size: Chinese women have been encouraged for decades to put off childbearing for career advancement, and many have done so. Unsurprisingly, their choice has come with a steep drop in marriage rates, a key factor in total fertility. 

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There are practical considerations, too: financial and biological barriers to conception. Chinese women are finding themselves incapable of conceiving, a possible consequence of multiple abortions. Others are simply too old. Still more are struggling to find a job: For these, the added cost of child rearing is far from desirable. A conference on the benefits of more kids won’t change that until the very real factors of life change also. 

American fertility does not look quite so tragic—yet. The United States’ total fertility is, however, well below replacement rates. Despite marginal increases, it appears unlikely to break above those rates without some significant cultural event. The average family size in 2021, the time of the last census, was 3.13: two parents, one child. 

These numbers may be worse for the fact that they are not, unlike China’s, overtly state enforced. Our cultural attitude toward family size, career, and childbearing are much the same as that of the Chinese, but, being independently chosen by Americans for as least as many decades as the CCP enforced the one-child policy, may only be more deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche. American women are evidence, too, that small changes in cultural attitudes toward birth and family size do not necessarily, and certainly do not immediately, result in an increase in fertility: The gap between the number of children American women say they want to have, and the number they do have, is the highest it has been in 40 years. We cannot expect that any number of free rice cookers will change that, and certainly not overnight. 

Financial incentives might go a lot further. In either case, doing nothing at all is certainly the best way to ensure we follow in China’s footsteps.