Census shows fundamental changes in Chinese family life: expert

China’s latest national census shows a low-birth regime, and one which population policies alone may be unable to change, according to WANG Guangzhou, a demographer and labor economist from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP



China's mainland population grew by an average of 0.53 percent from 2010 to 2020, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Tuesday. The mainland population has reached 1,411,780,000, up 5.38 percent from 2010.

China has experienced significant demographic changes in the past decade. Families are getting smaller, people are moving more, and, most notably, population growth has slowed down, despite population policies.

Jiemian News talked with the demographer and labor economist WANG Guangzhou from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, about the results of the seventh national census, conducted last year. He has attributed the low birth rate to fundamental socio-economic changes. These changes, Wang says, cannot simply be controlled by population policies alone, for it can be useful, but more researches are needed.

Jiemian News: What are the key takeaways from the census?

Wang Guangzhou: There are two. First, families are getting smaller. The average household size has dropped to 2.62 people per family from 3.1 compared with ten years ago. Statistically, that means a typical family is now smaller than the “mom, dad and kid” structure we have grown used to. It is a fundamental shift in our family and social structure.

Society has made it easier for people to live alone. Still, we should be looking into the underlying forces that make people choose not to get married or have children.

The second takeaway is that almost half a billion people, almost twice as many as in 2010, are not living at their permanent addresses (represented by hukou, or house registration information, in the census data - Editor).

But internal migration only explains part of the change. An unexpected factor is that relocation within cities has nearly trebled, meaning that a lot more people, for various reasons, are living in rentals even if they have their own house in the same city. What does this say about the utilization of personal assets? This is another thing we should look into.

Jiemian: Population growth has dropped. Some expect China’s population to peak by 2035. Do you agree?

Wang: Slowing population growth is a long-term trend unlikely to reverse. When exactly the population will peak is a factor of births and deaths, which the Bureau of Statistics hasn’t disclosed yet. I guess that the fertility rate is already very low. If that is the case, the population will peak quite soon.

Jiemian: In 2015, China started to allow every couple to have two children, but the policy hasn’t worked as well as expected. More recently, there have been talks of removing all population controls. What do you think?

Wang: The population might have been less were it not for the “second child” policy. Given current trends, I doubt any childbearing policy would have much material impact.

Declining births is not the result of population control policies alone. There are more fundamental reasons. Quality education is expensive from Xuequfang, literally the school district house that allows children to enroll in better schools in the region, to extra tutorials and raising school fees. Today’s young people think of family, marriage, and parenthood very differently from before. The shifts in values have been years in the making, but we only noticed when the family planning policy was changed. An examination of these root causes is long overdue.

Jiemian: Japan and Korea have issued measures to encourage births but have had limited success. What can China learn from them?

Wang: The results show that policy is useful, but not transformative. For example, childcare subsidies, in general, have a positive effect on births, but not as much as expected. A country cannot address low births simply by focusing on issues at birth. Policymakers and researchers should use the 2020 census to identify the socio-economic forces behind population issues and find a holistic approach to address them.

Jiemian: The flip side of low births is accelerated aging. China’s population is now very much older than it was ten years ago. How do you interpret the increase?

Wang: Technically, the increase is just the result of baby boomers born in the 1950s turning 60. And because population growth slowed down in the early 1960s, aging will not be as fast in the next five years. That being said, aging is a problem, which will be more pressing as life expectancy continues to increase.