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The backstory: For the first time in 60 years, China's population is shrinking. It’s estimated that, in 2022, the country’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 1.09 (the average replacement level fertility in developing countries is 2.1, which is what a population needs to replace itself from one generation to the next). It's predicted to lose almost half of its population by 2100; its number dropped by about 850,000 just last year.
This decline can be (at least partly) chalked up to restrictive family planning policies in place from the 1970s to 2016 and its major economic boom and modernization starting in the 1980s. With this growing economy came speedy urbanization, rising income and better education in more parts of the country. Put together, these shifts led to young people having fewer children.
China’s well-known one-child policy officially ended at the beginning of 2016, and all couples could have three children by 2021. But fertility levels haven’t bounced back. The number of couples getting married has also started to fall. On top of all this, China’s population is aging, so the whole thing could lead to a demographic crisis in the future.
More recently: The global economy depends on China’s working population to produce goods and staff its many factories, as the nation makes up one of the most powerful markets in the world. So, the government is looking at different ways to boost the fertility rate and encourage young people to have more children (ideally higher than the average 2.1 replacement rate).
Since 2021, local governments have put forward some interesting proposals, from tax deductions to longer maternity leave to housing subsidies for couples who have children. Beijing even banned private tutoring companies from profiting off teaching core subjects to help keep education costs low and make the idea of having children more accessible. Last year, the National Health Commission also started encouraging smaller governments to up investment on reproductive health and childcare services. These are just some of the policies and approaches that have been tried so far.
The development: Last Thursday, the county of Changshan in eastern China posted an interesting offer on its official WeChat account. Because aging affects a woman’s ability to have children, a woman's peak reproductive years are generally during the late teens to late 20s. So the Changshan government is looking to encourage couples to start planning for their families earlier, taking advantage of these peak reproductive years.
It’s now offering couples 1,000 yuan (US$137) as a “reward” if they get married when the bride is 25 or younger. This offer is only valid for first marriages. Along with this reward, it’s rolling out childcare, fertility and education subsidies. Right now, the youngest a woman can get married in China is 20, so that gives newlyweds a solid five years to tie the knot and claim that bag.
“Promoting age-appropriate marriage and childbearing, a reward of 1,000 yuan will be given to couples who are both registered for the first time in our county and the woman is 25 years old or younger (at least one party is registered in Changshan),” a translated version of the Changshan County official WeChat post reads.
“You’re not going to reverse the trend, but if you throw in the kitchen sink and make childbearing more attractive, you may be able to prevent the population from falling off a cliff,” said John Bongaarts, a demographer at the Population Council research organization, on policies to reverse national population decline.