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Can China's young generation reverse population decline?

William Yang in Taipei
January 26, 2023

China's government is offering benefits for young people to start families. However, many women say the country's demographic crisis won't push them to have children.

A woman holds a child, as two older children and man looking at his smartphone walk nearby
Attitudes toward family planning in China have been affected by social changesImage: Andy Wong/AP/picture alliance

Last week, China recorded a population decline for the first time in 60 years, with long-term projections showing a continued drop over the next 30 years.

In response, the government is scrambling to roll out different measures to boost birth rates, including offering financial subsidies and other benefits for families.

However, several young Chinese told DW that they have a pessimistic outlook on the future, and this is reflected in their changing attitudes toward marriage and family planning.

"Young people in China generally feel that the future is bleak and life is stressful," said Emma Li, a 25-year-old Chinese woman living in Shanghai. "Having children is a choice that will increase stress in life. Many of us have decided to become the 'last generation' in our family."

Li said the news of China's first population decline in decades has not changed her perspective on starting a family.

"I've had discussions about marriage and having children with many of my friends and a lot of them have no desire to follow the traditional route of family planning," she told DW.

"Since many young Chinese people today are highly educated, it's hard for them to be easily persuaded by notions that girls will definitely marry for love, live happy lives and have harmonious families," she added.

How China came to have a shrinking population

What is keeping young Chinese from starting families?

Others said the stressful lifestyle in China and pressures of everyday life simply deter them from starting a family.

"Long work hours, unfulfilling jobs, and the pressure to survive with low wages during inflation make it impossible for us to raise children," said Cynthia Liu, a 27-year-old woman living in Beijing.

"And due to strict government censorship on books, movies and even video games, we don't know how to ensure a happy childhood for our children. Our compassion and sense of responsibility have largely convinced us not to bring new lives into this kind of world," she added.

In 2021, the Chinese government introduced restrictions to limit children to three hours of online gaming a week. China's national radio and television administration also announced bans on cartoons containing "violence, blood, vulgarity or pornography."

Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, told DW that more young women in China are placing a greater emphasis on individualistic pursuits such as having a successful career.

"The gender discrimination in China's labor market and tremendous expectation of motherhood for women are constraints that deter individuals from getting married or having children," she said.

Youth unemployment up during COVID pandemic

The lockdowns and increased control from authorities during the coronavirus pandemic also had a significant effect on Chinese society and people's outlook on the future.

"The repeated lockdowns over the last three years have cost many Chinese people their savings and sense of safety," said Adam Wang, a 26-year-old Chinese man living in the city of Tianjin.

"Factories and delivery platforms can't offer the basic benefits for their workers, while more and more people are competing to become civil servants, as youth unemployment rate reaches a new high in China during the pandemic," he told DW.

He said the worsening economic outlook has left many young people in China struggling to make ends meet. "Many of us simply don't have the bandwidth to think about getting married or having children, because we can't even maintain a decent lifestyle for ourselves," he added.

After intermittent lockdowns in cities across China since 2020, the number of unemployed Chinese people between the ages of 16 and 24 reached 20 million in December 2022. Figures from China's National Bureau of Statistics also showed that the youth unemployment rate had reached as high as 19.9% in July 2022.

A man works at a factory
China is working to fight high youth unemploymentImage: Ding Lei/Xinhua/dpa/picture alliance

Government incentives falling short?

The last time China's year-on-year population declined was in 1961, the last year of China's great famine. In 2023, India is projected to surpass China as the world's most-populated country. The UN projects China's population will decline from over 1.4 billion in 2022 to around 1.3 billion in 2050 and below 800 million by 2100.

To defuse this demographic time bomb, the Chinese government has rolled out a series of measures to give young people incentives for having more children.

In some cities, authorities promise government subsidies for families with three children, while other cities provide subsidies encouraging people to buy homes.

However, it's unclear if these measures will be attractive enough to encourage people to start families.

"Wealthy cities like Shenzhen and Jinan have promised to offer up to 20,000 yuan ($2,900/€2,700) over three years for families having three children, but I think only people who already want to have more children will try to apply for those subsidies," Cynthia Liu in Beijing told DW.

"For women who don't want to have more children, they can easily earn more money than that in six months. In other parts of China, local authorities don't offer any subsidies. Their measures encouraging people to have more children are largely empty slogans painted on walls," she added.

Emma Li from Shanghai said many of her unmarried female friends and family members think the government doesn't offer enough support to convince women to have children.

"Even for those who want to have more children, the incentives for them are usually not related to the government's policies," she said.

"I think the fertility rate in China will continue to decline but in the near future, the quality of life for young people in China will improve, as they have more resources to spend on themselves," she explained.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn