Expert Doubts Incentives Would Boost China’s Birth Rate

Proposed incentives for couples to have a second baby—including tax breaks and extra maternity leave—won’t lead to a significant spike in China’s birth rate, a renowned demographer said.

Liang Zhongtang’s comments come amid growing concerns about the nation’s aging population, and government discussions on correcting the problem.

Enticements were proposed in Beijing this month at the National People’s Congress and a coinciding gathering of top government advisers as a way to ease the financial burden for couples who decide to have a second child.

But Liang said he doubts that incentives will be enough to prompt couples to have a second child because young Chinese women are inclined to have only one child—or none at all.

Liang, a longtime critic of China’s family planning policies, is calling on the government to let couples have more than two children or simply remove itself from family planning entirely. If the subsidies don’t work, “why can’t the government just scratch the family planning policy altogether, as we want to see more babies born in China?” he said.

Liang, a Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences professor, is a former member of a consulting body to the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

China eased its decades-long limit of one child per couple in 2014, when it allowed couples to have a second child even if only one of the parents was an only child. Previously, both parents had to be only children to be allowed to have a second child. Last year, the government began allowing all couples to have two children.

The number of births rose by 1.31 million to 18.76 million in 2016, or about 8 percent over the previous year. Of all of the births, about 45 percent, or 8 million, were the second child of a couple, according to the commission.

The National Health Commission predicts that the number of new births is expected to be 17 million to 20 million each year over the next five years.

The number of children each woman has in her prime childbearing years, defined as 15 to 49 years old, will rise from the current level of 1.4 to 1.6 to about 1.8, according to a study by Liang Jiangzhang, a demographics commentator, and Huang Wenzheng, a Johns Hopkins University demographics researcher.

That level is still below the international level of 2.1 children for each woman in the childbearing-age range needed to sustain a country’s population of 1.4 billion, according to the two demographers.

The increase in the birth rate in China is largely due to a rush of women deciding to have a second baby before they are too old to give birth, Liang Zhongtang said.

The increase in the average number of children women have will level off in the coming year and will not help avert the aging population, he said.

As of the end of 2015, more than 16 percent of China’s population was 60 or older, while 10.5 percent was older than 65, according to official statistics.