Support policies can make new family planning policy a success

Editor's Note: China has made remarkable economic achievements in the past 40-odd years thanks to the demographic dividends it enjoyed. But the falling fertility rate threatens to rob the country of those demographic dividends, so it has further eased the family planning policy to prevent that from happening. But will the new family planning policy work, asks a veteran journalist with China Daily in the third of a series of commentaries.

The easing of the family planning policy in 2015, allowing all couples to have two children from Jan 1, 2016, by the government resulted in a short-term baby boom, as about 1.91 million more babies were born in 2016, compared with the previous year.

But even before the policymakers could celebrate, the birth rate dropped again. In fact, the number of births has been dropping since then. The globally accepted replacement fertility rate is 2.1, which ensures a population replaces itself from one generation to the next, but the fertility rate in China has been between 1.7 and 1.8 for many years.

As this trend, if allowed to continue, would cause an imbalance in the demographic structure, the government announced one day before this year's International Children's Day on June 1 that all couples can have up to three children.

However, the childbearing couples' response, as I have learned after talking with a few of them and through social media, seems lukewarm.

Money is the top concern of couples in urban areas when it comes to having more than one child. When most couples have to spend half of their income on housing rent or housing mortgage, life for young couples, especially in metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, is far from easy.

For almost all families, having two or three kids means spending more on housing rent or buying a bigger apartment, not to mention the costs of raising and educating children-which would be beyond the budget of most young couples.

Most husbands and wives in China have to work to lead a decent life. Also, since maternity leave is usually for only three months, many young couples have to rely on their retired parents to take care of their newborns. And realizing that they would have to sacrifice at least a couple of years of their remaining lives to take care of their children's offspring, many senior citizens nowadays tell their children to not have a second child. The elderly people have their own life to manage, and prefer spending their time square dancing and traveling abroad or around the country.

Conversely, in many cases, even if the elderly people tell their children to have a second or third child-some even offer financial help including buying a bigger house for their children-the latter refuse, saying raising a child is costly and time-consuming.

Having become used to single-child family, most young parents tend to provide the best possible education to their only child. And education starts even before a child learns to walk or speak. There are institutions that specialize in pre-kindergarten "tutoring". Also, getting a child admitted to a good kindergarten and then a good school is a tough job.

During most of the dozen-year-long school education, the parents have to drop and pick up their children from school, go over all the text books and test papers, and help them with their homework. And now that after-school tutoring institutions, and special weekend and vacation courses, have been banned, parents have to shoulder greater responsibilities to ensure their children don't fall behind in the education race.

Although the 9-year compulsory education is free in China, most parents in cities have been paying huge amounts for their children's after-school courses to enhance their competitiveness in exams.

Concerted efforts are needed to encourage married couples to have three children in order to offset the impacts of the rapidly rising aging population and ensure China keeps enjoying the demographic dividends.

But even if the government provides subsidies, how much will be enough to motivate couples to have three children? Can good education be provided for all children so that parents don't have to spend too much time, money and energy to do the job of school teachers? Can longer paid maternity leave be granted to new mothers, so they can take proper care of their newborns?

Many such questions have to be answered before young couples can decide to have two or three children.

The author is former deputy editor-in-chief of China Daily.