Editor's Note: The seventh national population census released on Tuesday has attracted wide attention while proving some speculations wrong. Four experts share their views with China Daily's Zhang Xi on how China could better adapt to the population trend. Excerpts follow:
Long-term plan needed to increase birth rate
The seventh census shows the Chinese mainland has a population of 1.41 billion, with an annual growth rate of 0.53 percent over the past decade, down from 0.57 percent from 2001 to 2010.
The number of people aged below 14 was more than 253 million, accounting for 17.95 percent of the total population, up 1.35 percentage points compared with 2010.
The rise in the population aged below 14 shows the easing of the family planning policy has indeed increased new births. But much more needs to be done to adapt to the acute population changes.
China began easing the family planning policy in 2014, allowing couples either or both of whom were the only child of their parents to have two children. The country further relaxed the policy in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children.
But after the number of newborns reached 18 million in 2016, it declined to 17 million in 2017 and further to an estimated 12 million in 2020. That means the effects of the family planning policy relaxation have been diminishing.
As developed countries' experience shows, a favorable family planning policy alone cannot reverse the declining birth rate trend. The authorities should therefore encourage couples to do their own family planning, which is the original purpose of easing the family planning policy, in a bid to increase the birth rate.
Another feasible solution to China's demographic problem could be revising the outdated policies and provisions, implementing a series of pro-family measures covering marriage, prenatal and postnatal care, children's education, housing, social insurance and eldercare, and taking measures that would help couples to balance their parental and professional responsibilities.
It is also critical to create a maternity-friendly, child-friendly and family-friendly social and cultural environment to encourage all couples to have two children, with the government providing more support for parents raising children, especially guaranteeing quality education for them. In other words, the authorities should better integrate the family planning policy with related social and economic policies, in order to increase the birth rate.
Bolder steps to offset impact of aging society
The changes in the population structure are quite noteworthy. The proportion of the population aged between 15 and 59 in the total declined by 6.79 percentage points over the past decade, and that of people aged above 60 increased by 5.44 percentage points.
The central leadership introduced a more inclusive, but prototypical, family planning policy in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), which is aimed at addressing the increasing socioeconomic challenges brought about by China's rapidly aging population and shrinking demographic dividends.
Given these facts, the government needs to further adjust the existing family planning policy.
After years of efforts, the government introduced a universal two-child policy in 2016. Yet it did little to offset the effects of the aging population problem－because, according to official data, the number of new births fell from 16.87 million in 2014 to 14.65 million in 2019, with the estimated number of newborns in 2020 being 12 million.
Hence, the authorities should consider making bolder moves, such as lifting restrictions on births and allowing families to decide how many children they want. There is little chance of a "baby boom" today, because many young couples are reluctant to have a second child with some opting to not have any children at all, due to factors such as high cost of raising kids.
As such, by allowing families to make their own family planning, the authorities could address the socioeconomic problems created by the aging population and couples' unwillingness to have two children or any children at all, and ensure China's sustainable development.
Northeast China needs special population policy
The seventh census shows the proportion of Northeast China's population, specifically in Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, in the national population shrank by 1.2 percentage points over the past decade.
Will the abolition of the family planning policy solve the regional population problem? The answer is no, because relaxing the family planning policy alone is not the best way of boosting the birth rate.
The decline in Northeast China's population can be attributed to multiple factors, from its economic development model and industrial structure to its social policies. So just adjusting the family planning policy will not reduce the migration of people from the region or curb the increase in the aging population.
International experience shows the cause of falling fertility rates could be infertility problems and/or couples' unwillingness to have children due to "internal" or "external" factors.
In China, the external factors－stressful working and living conditions and rising cost of raising children－have made an increasing number of couples reluctant to have a second child.
Studying, working, getting married and having children are traditional family values in China. But since both men and women, in general, nowadays spend a longer time pursuing higher education before entering the job market, they tend to marry at a later age. Combined with these, the rising cost of wedding and the demands of pursuing a career are influencing couples' decision to have children.
It often needs decades, even centuries, for a society's demographic structure to change. The population decline in northeastern China is the result of several factors, which could lead to other problems. So the government must work out a long-term solution, including the revival of the industrial base in northeastern China, rather than seeking a simple way to increase new births.
Population challenges and development are linked
China is at a crossroad of industrialization and facing daunting challenges, such as a rapidly rising aging population and a declining fertility rate. Maintaining a healthy population growth rate and increasing the demographic dividends will play key roles in China's socioeconomic development.
China needs to prioritize three things to solve the population problem.
First, in order to strengthen its demographic development strategy, China must boost scientific innovation and deepen institutional reform to unleash the potential productive forces, improve production efficiency and foster high-quality development.
Second, the government should boost internal circulation which, along with external circulation, is part of the "dual circulation" development paradigm, to ensure workers get reasonable and higher salaries.
Third, the government needs to improve regional coordination to ensure equitable distribution and consumption of resources, and provide better public services and transportation to increase employment opportunities in underdeveloped areas.
The government also needs to improve education, and healthcare and eldercare services and reduce prenatal and postnatal medical costs.
And since the population problem and economic development are closely linked, the government should focus on achieving high-quality development.
Yuan Xin, a professor at the Institute of Population and Development, Nankai University
Jia Kang, chief economist of the China Academy of New Supply-Side Economics
Li Jia, deputy director and senior research fellow at Aging Society Research Center, the Pangoal Institution
Tang Yao, associate professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management
The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.