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Demographic free fall

China’s declining birthrate provides a powerful lesson for America

A man carries a child at a shopping mall in Beijing on Dec. 30. Associated Press/Photo by Ng Han Guan

Demographic free fall
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While Democratic leaders campaign on “restoring Roe” and even more extreme abortion measures, China is coming to terms with the fact that its birthrate is declining past the point of no return.

Falling birthrates—a phenomenon facing almost every developed nation—are, in many ways, the result of targeted policies and cultural messaging. In China, the regime’s one-child policy has worked all too well. Now Beijing is working overtime to reverse the demographic decline it has ushered in.

To put it in perspective, China’s National Bureau of Statistics documented 9 million births in 2023, a stark contrast to the 17 million births in 2017. Further, China recorded 11 million deaths in 2023, resulting in an overall population decline of 2 million people (about the population of New Mexico).  

As The New York Times recently noted:

History suggests that once a country crosses the threshold of negative population growth, there is little that its government can do to reverse it. And as a country’s population grows more top-heavy, a smaller, younger generation bears the increasing costs of caring for a larger, older one.

If this is indeed the case, China’s geopolitical future may be at risk. It is a problem of its own devising.

The Chinese Communist Party implemented the infamous one-child policy in 1980 because of concerns about overpopulation. During this period, horrific stories emerged of state-mandated abortions, forced IUDs, elective sex-based abortions in favor of male children, and the unprecedented rise in adoptions from China—mostly of little girls.

When China softened the one-child policy in 2016, Beijing expected a baby boom to occur as couples were finally permitted to have the number of children they wanted. But after an initial increase, birthrates continued to decline.

A report from the CCP’s Development Research Center found that decline is due to “delayed marriage age, decreased willingness among young people to have children, reduction in the number of women of childbearing age and higher prevalence of infertility and subfertility.” 

China has responded by providing generous financial incentives to parents, strong cultural messages with lectures on “family values,” and in some regions, changing family law to remove financial and social penalties for children born to single parents.  

The law is a teacher, and the social policies that govern the United States will shape the values, desires, and interests of its people.

Nonetheless, many women remain uninterested. They are, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “putting themselves ahead of what Beijing and their families want.”  

Attempts to boost birthrates through financial incentives and pro-family cultural messages are not unique to China. Japan, Hungary, South Korea, and Israel have all implemented similar laws, but birthrates in each country continue to decline.

In response, many countries have attempted to boost birthrates by offering state-subsidized access to reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) or legal access to surrogates. Spain and Israel each offer state-subsidized IVF for all women, while Hungary limits its program to heterosexual married couples. Scholars in Spain estimate that 1 in 10 births is the result of reproductive technology. Nonetheless, birthrates in all three countries continue to decline.

While surrogacy is still illegal in China, the IVF market is booming. The CCP has pledged to build one IVF clinic per 3 million people by 2025. Notably, Chinese nationals, particularly single men over the age of 42, are among the largest percentage of international clients who come to the United States to birth a child through commercial surrogacy.

There are two lessons American political leaders should learn from Beijing if they want to avoid China’s fertility woes. 

First, the law is a teacher, and the social policies that govern the United States will shape the values, desires, and interests of its people. A culture that celebrates abortion as a necessary “choice” for female empowerment will one day find itself encouraging an unsympathetic audience to have children earlier in life.

Second, reliance on artificial measures to conceive children, such as IVF or surrogate motherhood, is not a reliable course of action to overcome low fertility rates. In many cases, such technology seems to encourage the very individualistic attitude that countries are trying to overcome.

China’s birthrate perils are the fruit of bad policymaking and a lack of respect for human life. Unless the United States changes course, it is possible that we will find ourselves in a similar situation. Generation Z and Generation Alpha appear to lean increasingly left in their social policies, and likely their plans to have (or not have) babies are part of that troubling picture.

Emma Waters

Emma Waters is a research associate in The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Life, Religion and Family.

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