As China continues to struggle with a low fertility rate, a simple government policy change, such as removing the limit on the number of children couples can have, might not be sufficient to improve the worrying demographic picture.
What can China do to help couples make more babies?
The two-child policy has proved a disappointment. Introduced two years ago, its effect has so far been minimal. The country’s fertility rate remained below 1.5 births per woman last year, while the number of babies born actually fell.
If the fertility rate remains only 1.5, the size of next generation will be 20 to 30 per cent smaller than the current generation, which means a reduction in the size of the workforce and more pressure on pension funds.
As such, the government must consider a slew of policy packages to improve fertility rates by encouraging couples to have more children. Incentives might include financial support such as tax benefits and direct subsidies, or more investment in education, especially kindergartens.
Apart from government measures, a deeper social change is needed to encourage couples to have bigger families.
In China, women’s labour participation rate is higher than in many other countries in the region, including South Korea and Japan. Although Chinese women hold up half the job market – to paraphrase Mao Zedong – they also face discrimination when it comes to starting a family. It is not uncommon for employers to withhold promotion opportunities and pay rises from mothers.
The pastoral care offered by Chinese companies is also often lacking. Maternity leave periods are generally short – paternity leave of any length is rare – and few employers offer facilities such as crèches or breastfeeding rooms.
The social and cultural status of women also needs to be raised. As I’ve argued in the past, the tradition that children must take their fathers’ family name needs to change. Girls should be encouraged to take their mothers’ family name so as to alter the perception that only males can be heirs.
The idea of being “barefoot and pregnant” – staying at home and having children – is unattractive to many women these days and is often regarded as a sign of a lower social status. In this aspect, China can learn from Scandinavian countries, where better educated women with a high social status tend to have more children.
Also, Chinese authorities should respect and protect the rights of unmarried women and their children. As women have had more opportunities to further their education, there has been an increase in the number wanting to remain single, though this need not be damaging to the fertility rate.
Although marriage rates in northern Europe are lower than in many east Asian countries, about half of all births in the former are to unmarried couples.
China should also make fertility services more accessible. Many women who wish to defer having a baby have taken advantage of the egg freezing services offered by companies in the United States. Such options are rare in China, but if the government wants to give women more choice on the matter, they should be embraced and promoted.
Also, as girls mature earlier than boys, perhaps they should go to school and college earlier so that they can graduate at a younger age. That would give them more opportunity to have their first child at the age of 25, the biological “ideal.”
As the demographic bomb continues to tick, all options should remain open, as any one of them could be the key to China’s economic and social future.
James Liang is the co-founder and executive chairman of Ctrip and a part-time professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management.