Demography may not be destiny, but China has always been conscious of rearing the next generation. One of the three unfilial acts, according to the ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius, is the failure to bear a son. The Chinese have traditionally viewed offspring as a form of wealth, and have placed immense value on fecundity.  Despite such traditional beliefs, in the years after the Cultural Revolution senior officials of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) feared that overpopulation would exhaust the country’s scarce resources. In 1980, the CCP formally implemented the One Child Policy (独生子女政策, Dusheng Zi Nu Zhengce), or OCP, a national family planning policy that limited parents to only one child (Xinhua, November 16, 2015).
However, after over three decades of efforts to reduce population growth, People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials are now concerned about a shrinking workforce and an aging population. The CCP leadership repealed OCP in 2015, but the fertility rate in China is nowhere near pre-OCP levels. Furthermore, the PRC has seen a significant decline in birth rate in recent years (see discussion below). The true extent of the decline is impossible to verify, but the downward trend in birth numbers is worrisome. This article examines both official PRC statistics on total birth numbers for recent years, as well as discussions among Chinese netizens using unconfirmed statistics, to analyze the deep uncertainties surrounding China’s demographic and political future.
Discrepancies Between Official and Unofficial Sources Regarding China’s Birth Rate
Official PRC Sources and Foreign Academic Research
Official PRC government statistics on birth rate are available from the PRC National Health Commission’s Yearbook of Health Statistics (中国卫生健康统计年鉴, Zhongguo Weisheng Jiankang Tongji Nianjian), which reported that that the number of live births in Chinese hospitals in 2018 was between 13.62 and 15.21 million (China Yearbook Health Statistics Committee, August 2019). (The Health Commission has stated that the data discrepancy for 2018 was due to a change in the accounting for migrant populations.) In January 2020 the PRC National Bureau of Statistics reported an official 2019 total birth number of 14.65 million (National Bureau of Statistics of China, January 17). These numbers, if true, indicate a plausible decline in numbers of births for the years 2018 and 2019.
A far starker assessment comes from the research of Dr. Yi Fu-xian, an obstetrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Yi, a known pessimist on Chinese population growth, has estimated that China saw 10 million births in 2018 (based on extrapolations of data sources such as the number of childbearing women and school enrollment figures). Yi’s research was publicly cited in autumn 2019, but with the caveat that it would be impossible to assess a reliable count of the number of births before one or two additional census rounds in the PRC (Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2019).
Unofficial Discussions on the Chinese-Language Internet
In December 2019 a thread went viral on the micro-blogging platforms Twitter and Weibo, which claimed that there were 10.16 million births in the PRC between January and November 2019—and concluded that the total number of annual births in the PRC would not exceed 11 million (Caixin, December 3, 2019). This number, if accurate, would represent the second-lowest number of births per year since the founding of the PRC in 1949.  The unsourced statistic implies an implausible decline of 4 million births from official 2018 numbers; it is also 3 million less than the official 2019 number of 14.65 million released by the PRC National Bureau of Statistics in January (National Bureau of Statistics of China, January 17).
A frequently shared post on Twitter and Weibo gives an unsourced list of the number of births in China from 1949 to 2019. The poster, who uses the pseudonym of Fuli Dao Ke [ 复利刀客] and has over half a million followers, claims to be the Chief Health Analyst with an organization called Cheng Hong Research.  (See accompanying graphic above.) The last entry of the Weibo chart concludes: “As of November 17, 2019, [the number of total births] is 10.16 million. Based on this year’s monthly birth rate, predictions for the number of newborn infants next month will not exceed 1 million. Thus the 2019 birth population is about 11 million. The population has steeply declined” (Weibo, undated).
The underlying source for the 11 million number is unclear. One possible source is research conducted by Dr. Ren Zeping (任泽平), Chief Economist and Director of the Evergrande Think Tank (恒大研究院, Hengda Yanjiuyuan). Dr. Ren argued in October 2019 that the number of women of peak childbearing age (20-35) will decrease by 41 percent between 2018 and 2030. He predicted that under these demographic conditions, the number of births in 2030 will be 11 million (Finance World, October 4, 2019).
The statistics taken from the posting listed above, while unsourced, are plausible. According to the Weibo figures, there were 17.23 million total births in 2017—the first year that the “Open Two Child Policy” (开放二孩政策, Kaifang Er Hai Zhengce) saw its full effect—and 15.23 million total births in 2018. Calculations made by the author of this article, based on numbers from the official 2019 China Health Statistics Yearbook, yielded comparable results where data was available: 17.28 million total births in 2017 and 15.27 million total births in 2018. (The Yearbook lacks data for the year 2019, as well as many previous years.) China’s National Bureau of Statistics collects data on a yearly basis for its annual handbook; other government ministries such as the National Health Service collect data for a variety of other demographic indicators on a monthly basis, but official sources are rarely pegged to a specific date. Therefore, it is worth noting that the “November 17” timestamp makes this already-odd Weibo dataset even stranger.
Whatever the Estimate, China’s Birth Numbers Are Declining
Regardless of the source—and despite the fact that the lowest range of estimates (10-11 million births) is questionable—both official sources and unconfirmed online discussions indicate that China’s birth rate is declining over time. This has occurred despite government intervention efforts: the Chinese state has tried to incentivize births by establishing a pilot marriage consumption subsidy fund, and cancelling the late marriage leave policy (almost all Chinese births occur within marriage) (SCMP, August 24, 2019). Demographers have hung their hopes on government policies, traditional family planning wisdoms, and even zodiac superstition to increase birth numbers. 
Despite government policies encouraging childbirth since the repeal of the OCP in 2015, PRC citizens have shown themselves to be resistant to having more children (Caixin, December 20, 2018). The fertility rate in China remained virtually unchanged in 2016 and 2017 even though families were allowed to have two children those years (World Bank, July 6, 2018). Three primary explanations exist for this phenomenon, as discussed further below.
Three Reasons for China’s Declining Birth Rate
The high cost of raising a child in China is the most notable explanation for this decline. An analyst from the CCP Central Party School has stated that almost 80 percent of Chinese couples want two children, but only 3 percent follow through (East Asia Forum, April 19, 2017). The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated in 2005 that the average cost of raising a child from birth until 16 years old was approximately $75,200. In the same year, the PRC’s annual per capita disposable income was about $3,070, which explains why many Chinese households consider child-raising an unaffordable financial burden (China Daily, July 15, 2016).
As China’s economy has slowed, average wages stagnated while the cost of living rose drastically. We can extrapolate that the budgeting difficulties of procreation are even more severe today than in 2005. Parents fret about giving a child the tools to be successful in the competitive Chinese economy, which may include expensive after school classes in math, foreign languages, and extracurricular activities, as well as other child-associated costs including healthcare, real estate, and dowries. The meager subsidies that local governments provide (such as free or subsidized infant formula) do not come close to covering these expenses (Xinhua, January 19, 2019). Parents rely on grandparents to provide childcare (if the grandparents are available to do so), but even so, they must scrimp and save to support one child.
The second major reason is the outcome of a predictable demographic trend. Following the implementation of OCP in 1980, China’s national birth rate declined substantially throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Hence, the number of women at peak childbearing age today were themselves born during a period of demographic contraction. Even if birth rates were to increase slightly from year to year, the total number of births per year in China is still on a downward trend because of the decline in women of childbearing age. In addition, there was an observable “pile-on effect” in the two years immediately after the repeal of the One Child Policy; this means that women who were older and were not originally planning to give birth again took the opportunity to have a second child (Sixth Tone, February 14, 2019). This “pile-on” represents a one-time statistical aberration, and its impact will decline as couples adjust their family planning according to the new family planning policy changes.
The third factor is China’s ongoing problems of sexism and misandry, which exacerbate the decline in the number of births. Workplace discrimination towards women is illegal in theory, but common in practice.  Women are traditionally seen as childcare providers, and companies perceive women as less dedicated to their jobs after childbirth. Companies also balk at paying the high financial and time costs of maternity leave (Xinhua, July 4, 2019). As the most educated generation of Chinese women enter the workforce (Journal of Development Economics, 2013), they must decide to either leave their jobs to raise a family, or else delay childbirth in order to focus on their careers. It would require a large cultural shift to create a society where women can raise children and still be successful at work.
Addendum—The Implications of Birth Rate Decline in Xinjiang
The birth number decline in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region is worthy of discussion even though it only accounts for a small percentage of the total decline in number of births (Chyxx.com, archived July 9, 2019). The number of births in Xinjiang decreased dramatically from 388,000 in 2017 to 261,000 in 2018. This decrease is almost certainly linked to the mass imprisonment of Uighurs in the province, and is concentrated in areas with a high Turkic minority population: cities such as Altay and Changji saw a larger decline as compared to areas with a larger Han population such as Kashgar and Hotan. (Urumqi even saw a slight increase in births.) This decline is even more notable because the net population growth in Hotan and Kashgar was higher by approximately 8 percent in the years before the crackdown, although some of this growth is due to Han migration into Xinjiang as a part of the government’s “Go West” campaign (Journal of Political Risk, November 2019). PRC repressive policy measures directed against minority groups also risk stunting population growth in the poorer inland provinces.
Online discussions regarding falling birth rates provide a jarring reminder of the rapid shift of China’s demographic situation in recent years. Furthermore, the gap between official and unofficial birth numbers may reflect a broader lack of confidence in government statistics among Chinese netizens. This demographic mystery may not be satisfactorily resolved until after the next PRC census in 2020, and after the Chinese government publishes school enrollment numbers in the next decade (when the most recent population data will be available, and can be compared to school enrollment numbers). China’s implementation of the One Child Policy was an unprecedented case of state-led family planning, and seemed effective in the short run. In the long run, however, China is continuing to struggle with the ramifications of its population management efforts, and its citizens are taking note.
Linda Zhang is a Research Assistant at the American Enterprise Institute, where her research focuses on Chinese economics, trade, and demographics. She graduated from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) with a degree in Strategic Studies.
 See Khan, Sulmann Wasif, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, Harvard University Press, 2018, pp. 138.
 The lowest number of births per year (11.87 million) was recorded in 1961, the last year of China’s great famine. See: “China’s Birth Rate Falls to Near 60-Year Low, with 2019 Producing Fewest Babies Since 1961,” Sidney Leung, South China Morning Post, January 17, 2020, https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3046481/chinas-birth-rate-falls-near-60-year-low-2019-producing.
 As of the time of publishing, ‘Fuli Dao Ke’ was a verified ‘Big V’ account, with over 1 million posts and over half a million followers on Weibo. The viral post has since been taken down. Preliminary searches by the author were unable to yield additional information on the organization “Cheng Hong Research Center.”
 2019, the Year of the Pig, was an auspicious year for births, because “pig babies” are thought to be energetic, hard-working, and successful in life. See: “Will a Boom in Lucky ‘Pig’ Babies Reverse China’s Fertility Slump?” Teng Jing Xuan, South China Morning Post, December 20, 2018, https://www.caixinglobal.com/2018-12-20/will-a-boom-in-lucky-pig-babies-reverse-chinas-fertility-slump-101361611.html. Despite widespread superstition about the relative auspiciousness of different zodiac years, Ma Yan from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences did not find a correlation between birth rates and zodiac signs in his analysis of birthrate data between 1949 and 2008. See: “For China’s Birthrate, This May Be a Bad Sign,” Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, January 19, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-china-zodiac-babies-20150119-story.html.
 For more information on the socio-cultural impact of the OCP, see discussion surrounding the 2019 documentary “One Child Nation,” by filmographer Wang Nan-fu, which gives a comprehensive summary of the OCP and China’s gender disparity issues: “‘One Child Nation’ Finds Victims on All Sides of China’s Restrictive Policy,” Steve Dollar, November 11, 2019, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2019-11-07/one-child-nation-finds-victims-on-all-sides-of-chinas-restrictive-policy.
 China’s recent ‘Me Too’ (or 米兔, mitu) movement has revealed systemic problems with sexism. For details, see: Jiayang Fan, “China’s #MeToo Moment,” The New Yorker, February 1, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/chinas-me-too-moment.