The recent change of population policy in the most populous country in the world allowing couples to have one more child from the two-child ceiling has made international headlines. Many are wondering how China can be so populous and at the same time lament about a decreasing population.
In 2013, China allowed couples to have a second child if either parent was an only child. In 2016 the country phased out the one-child policy by allowing couples to have two children. According to the latest census data, Chinese citizens aged 60 years old and above accounted for 18.7 percent of the country’s total population in 2020, 5.44 percentage points higher than that in 2010.
The new policy, aimed at raising China’s fertility rate, meets the needs of building a birth-friendly society. Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics noted that China’s increasing elderly population will reduce supply in the labour force, one of the country’s competitive edge, while increasing the burden on families’ elderly care and the pressure on the supply of basic public services.
His sentiments were echoed by Chen Youhua, a sociology professor at Nanjing University, who was quoted by Xinhua news agency saying “an increasingly elderly population will increase the cost of labor and the pressure on the social security net, therefore hurting the vitality of the economy and the momentum of economic growth.”
In a meeting on May 31, President Xi Jinping, chaired a meeting of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee to study reports on major policy measures to actively address the aging of the population during the 14th Five-Year Plan period (2021-2025). The Plan lays down the grand strategic blueprint for the next half-decade.
The meeting reviewed a decision on improving birth policies to promote long-term balanced population growth, underlining the fact that the aging population had a direct impact on the country’s development and people’s welfare. Further, a younger population is an asset that will help to achieve the high-quality development of the economy and safeguard national security and social stability.
The new policy seeks to create measures that encourage and support couples who wish to have a third child. This will help improve China’s population structure, actively respond to the aging population, and preserve the country’s human resource advantages by advancing and aligning birth policies with relevant economic and social policies.
“Efforts are needed to improve prenatal and postnatal care services, develop a universal childcare services system, promote fairness in education, increase the supply of quality educational resources, and reduce family spending on education,” said a report from the meeting.
China’s new policy is within the purview of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda for SDGs adopted in 2015 is a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for the world. It requires both developed and developing countries to end poverty and other deprivations using strategies that improve people’s lives holistically.
China’s policy takes effect in the run-up to the World Population Day on July 11, an occasion that analyses population trends globally. But China’s policy brings in a new perspective to population planning, which has been synonymous with population control. A receding population growth like found in many Western countries is a liability equal to overpopulation.
African countries will especially will find justification for their high population growth rates for the same reasons that China is seeking to grow her population. In the coming decades, Africa will also be a world factory provided the current population growth rates do not drop significantly. On the flipside, it is a challenge for African governments to manage resources more efficiently. The fact that China is not known for hunger even with its vast population shows that, with proper planning, there are enough resources to be shared equitably.
The writer is the Executive Director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi-based research and development communication think tank.