When it comes to settling down and having children, 26-year-old Bihan Chen views the choice in simple terms: It’s a bad investment.
“Let’s face it, having a child is like owning an investment with no guaranteed return for at least 18 years,” Chen, a Chinese venture capital analyst, told Business Insider.
China is the second-most populous country in the world, but its demographic trends paint a grim picture for the Beijing lawmakers trying — and failing — to boost the nation’s population growth.
And for many of those who do get married, children just aren’t part of the vision.
Falling birth rates saw China’s population shrank in 2022 for the first time since the early 1960s. The population shrank again in 2023 when the number of deaths exceeded the number of births by 2.08 million people.
“I wouldn’t choose to spend a part of my income on children because it’s expensive. The biggest thing on my mind right now is how I am going to fund my retirement. I feel like with my current level of income, I can’t retire comfortably anytime soon,” Emily Huang, 29, told BI.
More to life than just having babies
Huang, who used to work in the tech industry before becoming a content creator, says she didn’t want to get tied down by starting a family.
“There’s just so much to explore in this world, so much to do in this very short life that I don’t see myself taking on the responsibility of having children,” Huang said.
Such opinions are prevalent on Chinese social media, with many lamenting the costs of raising a child.
“When it comes to having children, I don’t have a shred of desire, only fear. The downsides of having children far exceed the upsides. By not having kids, I only need to worry about my retirement,” one person wrote on the microblogging platform Weibo.
Others cited the loss of personal freedom as a key obstacle to having children.
“Not having kids means I can spend all my money on myself. I can take an overseas vacation whenever I like, sleep in on the weekends, and go out drinking late at night. That beats worrying about my kids day in and day out,” another person wrote.
From baby boom to bust
The looming demographic crisis has been a source of worry for China’s leaders. At last year’s National Women’s Congress, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, said China needs to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing.”
“We need to strengthen our guidance on marriage, childbirth, and family planning for our youths. We need to promote and implement pro-fertility policies and improve the quality of our human capital while taking care of our aging population,” Xi said in his speech in October.
The country has been actively trying to bolster its declining birth rates. China dropped its controversial one-child policy in 2016, allowing couples to have two kids. The government changed the rules again in 2021. Now, couples can have up to three children.
The measures, however, haven’t achieved the desired effect.
“This is because most of China’s fertility reduction, especially since the 1990s, has been voluntary and more of a result of modernization than fertility control policies,” Dudley L. Poston Jr., a sociology professor at Texas A&M University, said in a commentary for The Conversation in July.
“Chinese couples are having fewer children due to the higher living costs and educational expenses involved in having more than one child,” he continued.
Pain and gain
It’s not all about money. Having children remains a deeply personal decision that can’t be evaluated by finances alone.
Chen, the venture capital analyst, told BI she didn’t want to experience the pain of childbirth.
“We now know, via social media and online forums, about how painful it is to give birth to a child. This is the kind of information that is absent when a girl is growing up because mothers probably don’t talk about the pain of giving birth to them,” Chen said.
“My mum didn’t say that to me, and I’m pretty sure my grandmother didn’t tell her either,” she continued.
That said, not everyone is opposed to having children. Some talked about the joy that comes with watching their kid grow up.
“Having a child is a blessing that brings joy, although it can be a hassle at times,” said one person on Weibo. “Rich or poor, we’ve just got to take it one step at a time.”
Lanjie Wang, 25, an economics graduate student, told BI she would like to have children someday.
“I want to have children because I think I have brought happiness to my parents. I believe that my children will bring my family happiness as well,” Wang said.
Baby booms won’t offer a quick fix to China’s problems
To be sure, China is not alone in facing a demographic ticking time bomb. Japan and Korea have been facing low birth rates for years; America, too, has a declining birth rate. The problem is also often examined across generational, rather than geographical, lines, with many questions centering around why millennials around the world are delaying childbirth.
However, even a massive change in societal attitudes may not be able to address China’s demographic crisis.
“Even if China somehow does defy past trends and manages to boost its national fertility rates substantially, it will take nearly two decades to pay off as babies born today finally enter the workforce,” Collin Meisel, an associate director of geopolitical analysis at the University of Denver’s Pardee Center for International Futures, wrote in a commentary for Time in December.
If anything, China’s one-child policy might’ve been too effective in curbing its population’s growth.
“The one-child policy, which had been in place for 36 years, has irreversibly changed Chinese views of childbearing: having one child — or none — has become the social norm,” Fuxian Yi, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in a commentary for Project Syndicate in February 2023.
Nonetheless, China seems determined to undo the demographic effects of its past policies. Xi’s recent calls for more babies have begun to alarm those who recall the lengths the Chinese government went to enforce the one-child policy.
In 2013, China’s health ministry said that 336 million abortions and 196 million sterilizations had been performed since 1971.
“We saw what happened 30 years ago during the one-child policy when it was the other way around,” Huang, the content creator, told BI.
“I was scared when I first heard the news because I want my body to be under my control, especially when I don’t want children,” Huang continued. “I want that choice to be mine.”