This photo taken on March 7, 2020 shows a medical staff member putting clothes on a newborn at a gynaecology and obstetrics isolation ward for expectant mothers infected by the COVID-19 coronavirus in Xiehe hospital in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. Photo: AFP

Following last year’s headcount of China’s 1.4 billion population, Beijing’s shift last month from enforced contraception to encouraged baby-making appeared to be opportune. 

It took less than 20 days from releasing key findings of the census in early May to relax birth control demands and encourage each couple to have up to three babies rather than two. 

While there have been tepid responses from the Chinese in their prime reproductive ages, Beijing is trying new measures for more babies even with relaxed birth controls still in place. 

The latest turnaround was conceived when the National Statistics Bureau began to crunch census data since the first quarter. It presented a dire demographic picture that jolted the top leadership. The realization is that mere tweaks to population decision-making will not help reverse the downward demographic trend. 

The world’s most populous country faces a looming “baby deficit” and accelerated workforce greying.

China’s target of three children per family is being greeted with criticism. Image: Twitter

The census showed China’s fertility rate stood at 1.3 last year, meaning the average number of children to be born to a woman over her lifetime has slipped to an all-time low since such censuses were first conducted in the 1950s. The rate is now among the world’s lowest, almost on a par with fast-greying Japan.

That is why scholars and policy experts advocating reinstating the pro-birth policies of Mao Zedong’s era find Beijing’s tepid relaxation of birth controls underwhelming.

Indeed, there has been blowback from some experts whose recommendations were sought by policymakers. They say all birth control measures should have been scrapped to send the message that the more babies, the merrier, and that Beijing should have allowed full procreation autonomy for couples as well as unmarried partners.

Reactions from China’s Generations X and Y, the age cohort born since the 1980s who are now China’s base for future population growth, are also largely frigid.

These young Chinese were in diapers when party patriarch Deng Xiaoping ordered the one-child policy to hit the brakes on China’s “runaway births” in 1982, a move that deprived them of siblings. 

Three is just one too many for China’s numerous young parents especially working women. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

One telling indication of their waning interest in raising big families was that with so many negative comments, news portal NetEase had to shut an online opinion poll on Beijing’s relaxation this week. 

“Hesitancy will beget more hesitancy as Beijing lacks its sincerity, with no real, productive measures to help young parents and working women despite stunning birth rate drops,” read one post.

Such discussion on the website has now been largely censored, likely out of the concern that it may perpetuate people’s resistance.  

Mu Guangzong, a professor with the Peking University’s (PKU) Institute of Population Research, wrote on his blog that Beijing was still fixated on setting a specific number of children parents could have rather than drop all limits.

He lamented that even China’s lethargic birth rate since Beijing ended the draconian one-child policy in 2015 and the ultra-low fertility rate had failed to push the top leadership into giving more childbearing freedom to its people.

Some also suspect that Beijing would never let go of birth controls as it may be an indirect admission of the mistakes of the one-child policy.

Liang Jianzhang, a scholar with the PKU’s Guanghua School of Management and one of the loudest voices in China against any form of government inference in raising children, said Beijing should have abolished all controls at the turn of the century to avert a demographic crisis but now “the ship had sailed.”

He asked if a couple would still be fined or even face forced abortion like in the past if they wanted to have more than three children or if there was an unplanned pregnancy. 

No one has answers to his questions and local birth control officials are yet to be given updated instructions. But there are signs that cadres in charge of birth control policing and penalties will have to prepare to reverse what they have been doing in past decades. 

A young mother and her newborn baby. China’s total fertility rate revealed by the latest census is 1.3, already among the world’s lowest despite still being the world’s most populous nation. Some analysts say, however, that China may soon lose that title to India. Photo: Asia Times

The influential Southern Weekend newspaper reported this week that officials in China’s northeastern backwater province of Heilongjiang, whose population has shrunk at the fastest pace in the past decade amid a brain drain and slumping births, had requested hospitals and clinics to report abortion cases weekly to work out an approval process and a quota system. It is said that “unauthorized” termination of pregnancy would be fined.

Heilongjiang officials denied such moves, but WeChat and Weibo users there say such quotas have been in place since this month. 

The broadsheet also speculated that Beijing may soon insert a new set of metrics about population growth into its appraisal of local cadres and link their promotion to whether they can boost births in the cities and counties they serve. 

In Guangdong, where the newspaper is based, some cities have included birth growth targets in their Five-Year Plans of social and economic goals. Such a move may be replicated nationwide, according to the paper. 

“Couples should be fully allowed to anticipate and attain their desired number of children as well as the spacing and timing of their births,” said PKU’s Liang.

“How can Beijing encourage and help? It’s simple. Coalesce efforts for more creches, longer maternity holidays and more laws to guarantee job security and redress the balance for working women if their jobs or pays are at stake when they choose to have babies.”

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