Asia is heading straight into the demographic wall

After the economic miracle, the demographic crisis? This is the question that we can ask ourselves in view of the worrying statistics in the countries of East Asia. The birth rate (i.e. the average number of children that each woman gives birth to) is at half mast everywhere, at levels lower than in Western countries. The most populous country in the world (1.4 billion inhabitants), China serves as a symbol. 2020 data from the National Bureau of Statistics indicates that the fertility rate there is 1.3 children per womanfar from the generation renewal threshold (2.1).

That year, 12 million children were born in the country. In 2021, that number has fallen further, to 10.6 million. This trend has been going on since the Communist Party took power in 1949. At this rate, China’s population could begin to decline before 2030.

Elsewhere, it is not better: according to the world Bank, the fertility rate is 0.9 in South Korea, 1.1 in Hong Kong and Singapore, 1.4 in Japan. The countries with the most worrying trajectory in Europe are Spain (1.2) and Italy (1.3), a long way from France, which defends itself quite well in this area (1.9 children per woman ).

Birth control, a bygone obsession

We are a long way from the post-war period, when Asian governments feared overpopulation which would have had dramatic consequences in a continent that was poor at the time. In 1979, the Chinese government set up one child policy, a radical way to limit births. But the other countries are not to be outdone, most of them resorting to strong – albeit more liberal – measures to reduce the size of families. Major awareness campaigns are organized to make people aware of the means of contraception. Many health centers are open, which install astronomical quantities of IUDs free of charge. Small families are fiscally advantaged, even prioritized when obtaining social housing.

It works, but this state intervention is just accompanying a more natural movement, explains Stuart Gietel-Basten, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and an expert on the subject: “At that time, it was in a lot of people’s interest to have fewer children.” Because at the same time, the Asian economy is soaring. Young people have better career opportunities, they live more in small apartments in the city. Inevitably, they have less appetite for a large offspring…

The situation is no different today. The proof, despite the abandonment of the one-child policy in China (right to two children in 2016, then to three in 2021), the number of births is not rising. By browsing the newspapers of different countries, we understand that the cost of living is a powerful demotivating factor. To the high rents, we must add childcare costs and then possibly, in these performance-oriented societies, an expensive private school, and evening or private lessons. “The burden is not only financial, but also psychologicalnotes Gietel-Basten. You have to push your children to succeed.”

The author of the book The “population problem” in Pacific Asia also points to the effect of gender roles in the continent. “Women are expected to take care of children while working. Since they are more and more educated, having a child represents a very high opportunity cost for them.

Icing on the cake, it is rare (and rather frowned upon) to have children out of wedlock in Asia. Before devoting oneself to one’s offspring, one must therefore commit oneself maritally, with all the consequences that this implies. This can discourage many young people; moreover, the number of marriages is also in freefall.

The social safety net, big winner

For a government, the low birth rate is a problem. In the long term, a decline in the number of taxpayers threatens the financing of state social missions and pension funds. More generally, how will Asia be able to achieve the global economic dominance predicted for it with declining demographics? And who will fill the schools tomorrow? In Taiwan, the problem is already very concrete: a dozen universities have been taken over by others, or have closed altogether. A third of the remaining 152 are expected to suffer the same fate in the coming years.

To remedy the problem, the various states are pulling out all the stops. A little everywhere, there is talk of better reimbursing assisted procreation, of granting more maternity leave, of making crèches more accessible. Stuart Gietel-Basten thinks these are good policies to help young couples improve their daily lives, but he doubts they will achieve their objective (i.e. to dramatically improve the birth rate) . “They don’t directly address the roots of low fertility, such as work culture or gender inequality.”

Several cities, notably in Japan and China, have decided to give money to families for each birth.

According to him, it is simplistic to consider the problem only from the pronatalist angle. “If what you’re worried about is the social security system, then having more children won’t help you in the short term, babies don’t work, they even take resources away from the workforce! If the financing of pensions is threatened, I would simply say to you: reform it.”

Other, much more original means have been used in recent years to encourage families to have children. For example, several cities, particularly in Japan and in China, have decided to give them money for each birth. At the end of 2020, Japan decided to invest in programs of artificial intelligence to help singles find their better half. In Thailand, the government wants appeal to influencers from the web so that they sing the praises of family life.

Women’s rights, big losers?

Could this desire for children, however, turn into pressure on young people, and in particular on women? Gietel-Basten already observes this in advertising campaigns which, while encouraging women to give birth, also subtly blame the choice not to do so. He cites for example this Korean poster where we see two plants: one has a single leaf and looks bad, while the other, the one with two leaves, is in perfect health. The slogan? “One is not enough.”

A poster of the Korean campaign “One is not enough”, which aims to encourage women to give birth.

But it is still from China that the greatest fears come: last September, the government there unveiled the main lines of his plan for the “women’s development”. One point caught our attention: the commitment of “reduce abortionss made for non-medical reasons”.

In March 2022, Hua Yawei, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (an assembly that the government consults before deciding laws) reiterated this wish: he suggested banning abortion, except for adolescents or in cases of high-risk pregnancies, and better monitoring the clinics that practice it.

It would be an upheaval in a country that has had massive recourse to abortion for forty years. Yawei also hopes to reduce discrimination against single mothers. Currently, they are deprived of maternity leave and free medical care during pregnancy, and must pay a special tax – like couples with several children used to be.

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In short, a major policy shift is coming in the former one-child country, but maybe it will just change the bad place…

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Asia is heading straight into the demographic wall

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