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Why China Is Struggling to Boost Its Birthrate

A couple stroll down the riverside boardwalk in Shanghai, on Jan. 16. 

A couple stroll down the riverside boardwalk in Shanghai, on Jan. 16. 

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Please have more babies. That’s China’s message for couples after decades of limiting most families to just one child. Why the turnabout? China is aging. China’s working-age population has been shrinking, and projections show that one quarter of the population will be 60 or older by 2030. This threatens an economic boom that’s been built on a vast labor supply, and there may not be enough able-bodied people to take care of all those seniors. Policy makers are increasingly concerned that drastic action is needed to face a quickly graying society.

The Politburo decided last year to allow all couples to have a third child, five years after changing its one-child policy to allow women to have two. (Family-planning policies were totally stricken from a new Civil Code, leaving room for the government to scrap birth limits altogether.) The change to allow two kids worked at first: The number of newborns in 2016 was 17.9 million, a jump of more than 1 million from the year before. However, births dropped each year after that, to 10.6 million in 2021, the lowest since 1950. The fertility rate, or average number of lifetime births per woman, fell to 1.3 in 2020, far below the 2.1 needed for a steady population, excluding migration.