ccording to the annual China Statistical Yearbook released in October 2016, China’s total fertility rate – the average number of children a woman gives birth to in her lifetime – was just below 1.05 in 2015, far below the internationally recognized population replacement rate of 2.1.
The report surveyed 5.67 million women between the ages of 15 and 49, accounting for 1.55 percent of all child-bearing age women, who gave birth to 175,309 children in 2015.
Some demographers stated China’s birthrate was below all the other 199 countries surveyed by the World Bank. If the fertility rate of 1.05 is accurate, they argued, China is caught in a trap of the lowest possible fertility.
But when interviewed by NewsChina, Zhai Zhenwu, director of the China Population Association and dean of the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University, said it was an exaggeration to claim that China’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world, adding that according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), China’s fertility rate from 2012 to 2014 was 1.53, 1.54 and 1.59. In 2015, he stated, the fertility rate was 1.54. NewsChina questioned him on this and other topics.
NewsChina: Are you surprised at the purported fertility rate of 1.05?
ZZ: I am not surprised because over the past 10 years China’s fertility rate had been very low if we go by the estimates from sampling surveys, roughly between 1.1 and 1.2. But this data is not very reliable.
The NBS surveys 1 in every 1,000 people annually, 1 in every 100 every five years, and a nationwide population census every 10 years. Some statistics are of high quality and some are of low quality with underreporting, omissions and restatements. The NBS never adjusts or corrects the data before publication, only providing a reference.
The purported 1.05 fertility rate in 2015 was estimated from the raw data. If the 1.05 fertility rate were accurate, China would have seen just 11 million births nationwide in 2015, but in fact, 16.55 million children were born in 2015 according to the NBS.
NC: If it is difficult to figure out a relatively reliable fertility rate based on sampling surveys in the China Statistical Yearbook, is it fine to calculate the fertility rate from the newborn population released by NBS?
ZZ: Sure. The publication of the newborn population is effectively the same as the release of fertility rate. The fertility rate is calculated based on the newborn population and the number of women of child-bearing age. The number of women of child-bearing age is easy to get and it is easy to calculate the fertility rate after obtaining the number of newborns.
Take 2015, NBS statistics show that 16.55 million babies were born and there were 366 million women of child-bearing age. Based on these, the fertility rate in 2015 stood at 1.54.
NC: Is it appropriate for China to maintain a fertility rate between 1.5 and 1.6?
ZZ: A fertility rate of 1.5 to 1.6 is the level in Europe. Several years ago, the policymakers who drew up China’s national population strategy proposed that it is appropriate for China to have a fertility rate of 1.8 in the next 20 to 30 years to sustain a healthy and balanced population growth. It will affect sustainable economic and social development if the rate is too high or too low. China adjusted its population policies, including allowing all couples to have a second child, after realizing that the fertility rate of 1.6 is too low.
NC: If the figures for newborns in the sampling survey is not reliable, is the figure of 16.55 million newborns released by the NBS accurate?
ZZ: It is basically accurate that China has had roughly 16 million births annually over the past several years, as the figures released by the NBS indicate, which can be verified by the number of registered new births at hospitals nationwide and the lower age group data registered by the household registration system.
According to statistics from the National Health and Family Planning Commission, over 99 percent of China’s births are now in hospitals. From 2012 to 2015, hospital births hit 16 million annually, meaning that over 16 million children were born annually nationwide.
China’s household registration data also showed that in 2015, the number in each yearly group of children aged from two to five had exceeded 16 million. It is more accurate and scientific to calculate the fertility rate by using the number of newborns.
NC: Some scholars say that although China has allowed all couples to have two children, the problem of low fertility is yet to be solved. How do you see the relationship between the policy relaxation and the low fertility rate?
ZZ: The previous policy relaxation in 2013 allowed couples where just one spouse was an only child to have a second child. On January 1, 2016, the policy to allow all couples to have two children was implemented.
If a woman got pregnant on the day of January 1, 2016, her child would have been born only a couple of months ago. Generally speaking, the probability for a woman to get pregnant is 0.12 to 0.15 in each month if couples cohabit without using any contraceptives. It takes six to eight months to get pregnant for each couple on average and another 10 months before childbirth. As a result, the effect of the policy relaxation to allow all couples to have two children might not surface until the second half of 2017.
It is less than a year since the policy relaxation was implemented and it is impossible to scientifically assess its effects on boosting the fertility rate. The newly added population in 2016 is closely linked with the policy relaxation in 2013 that allowed couples where one spouse was an only child to have two children, rather than the population policy introduced on January 1.
NC: Do you expect that the newborn population in 2016 will be greater than that in 2015?
ZZ: There were fewer new births in 2015 partly because many people avoided giving birth to a child in the Year of the Sheep and thus delayed their plans to conceive. [Traditionally, the sheep is considered an inauspicious animal] In addition, the effect of the policy change that allowed couples where at least one of the spouses was an only child to have two children will be evident in the 2016 data. We predict more new births this year.
The change is evident in some major Chinese cities. In Beijing, the number of pregnant women registering in hospitals has been on the rise each month from June 2015 to June 2016. Nowadays, at least 30,000 women are registering every month in the city. It is expected that over 300,000 babies will have been born in Beijing in 2016, up from 200,000 in 2015.
NC: What are the main negative effects of the low fertility rate?
ZZ: If the fertility rate continues to be low in China during its economic transition, problems including aging population, “empty nest” families, and labor shortages will surface that will affect economic growth.
In the Chinese coastal areas which are home to labor-intensive industries such as toys, clothes and shoes, it will be difficult for them to continue working if labor shortages continue. [A labor shortage] will push these enterprises to upgrade to technology-intensive industries.
It is a natural phenomenon for the fertility rate to drop as societies develop economically. More than 100 years ago, it was common for many families in developed countries in Europe and the United States to have six or seven children. Along with massive urbanization, rising education levels, and the fall in the mortality rate, the fertility rate in these countries has dropped to a very low level. In Europe, the fertility rate is 1.6 on average and in developed countries in Asia, the fertility rate is even lower – 1.4 in Japan, 1.2 in South Korea and 1.3 in Singapore.
NC: Do you think that increasing the fertility rate will relieve the pressure of an aging population? What will be its effect on demographics?
ZZ: The proportion of elderly people in the entire population will decline if the number of newborns increases. A fertility increase will take effect in addressing the aging population. If a country’s labor force, those aged between 15 and 59, accounts for over 60 percent of the population, it produces a “demographic dividend” period when the proportion of elderly people who need care is low.
It will be 15 years before the kids born after China allowed each couple to have two children enter the workforce. The population policy relaxation, however, will make China’s demographic dividend eventually pay off at some point in the future.