Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang have long been grappling with a shrinking population. Photo: Xinhua

The three northeastern provinces of Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang have usually been forgotten in China’s impressive growth story over the past decade or so, while well-off coastal regions continued to bolster development.

When these northeastern provinces – collectively referred to as China’s “rust belt” – do appear in national news, more often than not it’s for bad reasons. One recent example is the still-unfolding scandal over fake or substandard vaccines for babies produced in Changchun, capital of Jilin, as well as shambolic government oversight there.

After an outspoken journalist blew the lid off the years of falsification of vaccine quality records as well as bribery by Changchun Changsheng Pharmaceuticals, some speculated that one reason for the scandal was that Jilin doesn’t have many babies itself, since parents in this economic backwater are less enamored about carrying on their family lines than in other parts of the country.

Now we have figures as to back up this notion.

Are kids becoming an endangered species in northeastern China? Photo: Xinhua

The Global Times quoted a US-based demographer as saying that the total fertility rate in Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang was “among the lowest” in the world, and was even a third lower than that of Japan, a country known to be facing an aging population.

Yi Fuxian, a researcher at the School of Medicine and Public Health of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the three provinces’ total fertility rate, or the average number of babies a woman will have over her lifetime, stood at an alarmingly low level of 0.55 in 2015.

This means that, theoretically and excluding population inflows, the next-generation population in the region will be only one-fourth of the last one.

China’s overall fertility rate was 1.05 that year, which is already lower than 199 countries and regions according to a World Bank report. China’s looming “baby crunch” forced Beijing to scrap its rigid, decades-long one-child policy in 2015, yet critics say the U-turn was too little, too late, as the trend had become almost irreversible.

A report published by China’s National Health Commission in 2016 said the fertility rate in northeastern China was 0.75 in 2010, and even if this official figure is to be believed, normally a population needs three times that level to avoid shrinkage.

The population of northeastern China, 120 million as of 2010, accounted for 8.2% of the country’s total, a drop of 0.2% from 2000, according to data from the National Statistics Bureau.

Northeastern provinces used to be China’s economic powerhouse prior to the 1990s but have since been plagued by lackluster growth and a population exodus after industrial and commercial activities quickly shifted southward, especially to Guangdong, which now boasts a bigger gross domestic product and population than Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang combined.

The Liaoning provincial government this month gazetted a plan to boost the population by more than a million, from the current 43.8 million to 45 million by 2030, and subsidizing families that plan to have a second child and longer maternity and paternity leaves are among the new measures on offer.

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