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Active incentives needed to encourage childbearing

GUO YUNWEI | 2022-10-27 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Children learn Taekwondo at a classroom in Guangzhou, Guangdong. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th CPC National Congress included “ensuring better access to childcare” as a key part of protecting and improving people’s livelihoods. In order to further curb the declining fertility rate and population aging which accompany economic and social development, the CPC introduced the three-child policy in July 2021 and has been promoting the implementation of relevant supporting policies ever since. The policy is yet another major measure that the country has rolled out to steer its demographic structure towards healthier development since the country’s “strict two-child” policy [couples are permitted to have two children if both are from single-child families] “selective two-child” policy [couples can have two children if either is from a single-child family], as well as the universal two-child policy. Against this backdrop, it is logical to introduce the three-child policy, in a bid to optimize the country’s age structure, which may fundamentally slow down the speed of population aging.  

To grow a country’s population, households need to have children. Nevertheless, a child’s birth is only the beginning of the journey, which is time-consuming and costly in regard to nurturing and educating the next generation. It takes much more than lifting restrictions on childbirth to improve the country’s birth rate. We need to apply a series of active supportive policies regarding childbearing, childcare, and education. 


Childbirth, childcare, education

Since the 19th CPC National Congress, the Party and the country have paid high levels of attention to enacting active supportive policies which encourage childbearing, and many distinctive achievements have been made in fulfilling people’s need for childbearing, childcare, and education. 

To improve childbirth, the country has promoted all-process health service for women and children, which boosts the health conditions of pregnant and postpartum women, as well as infants. According to recent annual statistical bulletins on health development in China, published by the National Health Commission (NHC), the maternal mortality rate has dropped from 19.6 out of 100,000 in 2017 to 16.1 out of 100,000 in 2021. The infant mortality rate has dropped from 6.8‰ to 5.0‰. Maternity insurance coverage has significantly expanded, as the systems for maternity insurance and medical insurance continue to improve, and birth costs for unemployed women can be covered by urban and rural residents’ medical insurance. According to the Outline for Women’s Development in China (2021-2030), the number of women with maternity insurance increased from about 84.28 million in 2017 to 103 million by the end of 2020.

  To improve childcare, the country has decreased people’s time costs and economic costs, while improving the environment for childcare. Many local authorities have revised their regulations regarding population and family planning, extending female employees’ maternity leaves and male employees’ paternity leaves, to ensure that parents have more time to care for their children. In addition, nursing expenses for children under three years old are deducted from IIT taxable income as special additional deductions, which reduces families’ economic cost for raising kids. Moreover, the country has also carried out child-friendly city schemes, with Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Chengdu, etc. being the pilot cities. Meanwhile, pilot communities for child-friendly community schemes have also been determined, and relevant specifications have been published. 

To improve education, China has actively developed preschool education, while further consolidating and enhancing achievements within the country’s compulsory education system. Recent National Education Development Statistical Bulletins released by the Ministry of Education revealed that the number of kindergartens in China increased from 255,000 in 2017 to 294,800 in 2021, the latter of which includes 244,700 inclusive kindergartens. Total enrollment of students at the compulsory education stage increased from 145 million in 2017 to 158 million in 2021. The nine-year compulsory education retention rate went up from 93.8% in 2017 to 95.4% in 2021. 

High demand for nursery

Although many major achievements have been made in terms of supportive policies related to childbirth, childcare, and education, it is important to recognize the existing weakness in nursery care. The current resources for caring for infants and toddlers aged 0-3 do not meet people’s demands. 

Currently, families remain the main providers of childcare for infants and toddlers aged 0-3. This method faces many dilemmas. Childcare at this stage is more nurture-oriented than education-oriented, and it requires a huge input of time and energy from infant care providers. 

If we zoom in to look at a family whose elderly members are healthy enough to care for the newborn, then intergenerational child-care cooperation is possible. However, as people start to have children at a later age, senior family members are finding the task of childcare harder when their grandchildren are born. It is also likely that the new grandparents themselves require elderly care. On top of that, many women at the peak child-bearing age are “only children,” which further stretches the resources of care for the old and the young.

If we zoom out to look at resources outside the family, existing nursery care services remain expensive and limited. Professional social organizations providing childcare are relatively limited in comparison to those in other fields. Furthermore, nursery resources are unevenly distributed between urban and rural areas. Facing the challenge of childcare, many women have to resign from their work after childbirth, and shoulder the responsibility of childcare by themselves, which leads to a waste of human resources. 

The shortage of nurseries for infants and toddlers aged 0-3 holds families back from childbirth. Based on a questionnaire survey about childbirth services conducted by the then National Health and Family Planning Commission [the Ministry was dissolved in 2018] in 2016, a scholar found that over one-third of the respondents said they needed childcare services from society. According to data released by Population Surveillance and Family Development, NHC, the enrollment rate for infants in various kinds of nurseries in China stood at a sheer 4.1% in 2020. After the country introduced the three-child policy, the childcare shortage within families will become more obvious. Therefore, besides lifting restrictions on childbirth, it is necessary to help families take care of their infants and toddlers, to encourage people to have children by sparing them the fear of lacking childcare resources, to ultimately bring birth rates to an ideal level. 

To address the challenges above, the Party and the country need to pay more attention to developing the nursery industry. The General Office of the State Council released a statement in June 2019, which proposed development of inclusive nursery services for infants. The Outline of the People’s Republic of China for the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and Long-Range Objectives through the Year 2035 also proposed to expand inclusive nursery services. It has also specified the requirement for increasing the seats available for infants and toddlers under three years old from 1.8 seats per thousand in 2020 to 4.5 seats by 2025.


Multiple supportive measures

To better engage related functional departments into implementing active childbearing policies, coordinate interdepartmental work, and establish a security system for active childbearing policies, 17 departments including the NHC published a statement in Aug 2022. The statement proposed to take into comprehensive account issues concerning marriage, childbirth, childcare, and education when improving and implementing supportive policies for active childbirth incentives related finance, revenue, insurance, education, housing, employment, and more. Regarding improving actively supportive childbirth policies, three tasks require more work. 

First, it is important to meet the demand for childcare. Specifically, we need to ensure maternity leave and encourage employers to allow parents to work with flexible working hours. In terms of enriching nursery resources outside the family, it is necessary to set up inclusive childcare institutions, while encouraging institutions to develop more types of care services, giving parents more options. China should also continue to ease parent’s economic burdens with tax reductions, tax exemptions, and subsidies. When it comes to enhancing people’s ability to take care of children, information technology can be used to popularize more childcare knowledge. 

Second, we must promote active childbearing policies and labor employment security policies in a balanced manner. Having a child is an active choice, made by the people, and it usually significantly increases living costs. Whether or not a family has a stable source of income often determines its fertility decision-making. 

For one thing, it is necessary to increase efforts to stabilize the job market, generate more jobs, and reduce unemployment rates. Ensuring that people who have an interest in having children obtain a stable source of income can help them transition from interest to action. In addition, labor law must be applied to put an end to illegal overtime labor, in a bid to safeguard workers’ lawful rights and interests and protect the time and money needed for childbirth, childcare, and education. In particular, when putting into place active childrearing policies, it is important to make sure that women are not subjected to discrimination at work. 

Last, it is important to take into consideration the element of a family’s life journey. Due to Chinese people’s delayed average childbearing age, a family may face the pressure of elderly care and childcare at the same time. That’s why it is necessary to look at the issue from a family’s perspective and pay more attention to carrying out active childcare policies and elderly care policies while making sure they work hand-in-hand. This should especially be the case when the country has only recently ended the single-child policy, which had been enforced for over 30 years. As a result, most women of childbearing age are single children, who tend to have fewer family members to share the burden of elderly care and childcare with. Thus, social supportive measures need to be applied to help people avoid sudden stressors coming from family obligations. 

Currently, China has begun a new journey toward the second centenary goal of building a modern socialist country in all respects. To optimize China’s population age structure and build a family-friendly and childrearing-friendly society, we must take all necessary measures to introduce and implement active childrearing policies and strive to create a new process that ensures access to childcare, and gives people a better sense of gain. 


Guo Yunwei is an assistant research fellow from the National Institute of Social Development, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.



Edited by WENG RONG