Scholars debate: Is it necessary to boost the declining birthrate?

The National Bureau of Statistics released data from the seventh national census on May 11. China is still the most populous country in the world, but the country is aging. What challenges will the demographic changes pose to the Chinese society? And what should be done to deal with the slowing birthrate?

Prof. John Gong from the University of International Business and Economics said he was surprised to see an increase in China's population, but he thinks a population decline is inevitable in the near future as the family size is shrinking.

"The bad news is that the population is declining. But I think the good news is that probably the education level, the literacy rate, and also the productivity side of things are improving, somehow compensating the shortage of labor supply that I will foresee in the future," he said.

Prof. Hu Naijun from the School of Public Policy and Management at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is particularly concerned about the structural change of the population as revealed in the census – the ratio of elderly people is increasing while the proportion of people in labor age is decreasing.

"In the future, we will have more and more people who are in need of eldercare services. At the same time, we will have less and less people who can deliver this kind of service," said Prof. Hu. "We can see a very challenging situation in our eldercare services… We have to spare no effort in increasing the birthrate of China.”

To boost the falling birthrate, Prof. Hu thinks the key is to lower the burden and cost of giving birth for the young generations. For example, he said the country can provide better healthcare, reduce working hours and control housing prices.

Prof. Steve Keen, on the other hand, thinks it's necessary for the human population to fall in general. He said in terms of the planet's capacity and how the population stabilizes independently of the impact of climate change, 10 billion people is the limit and we're approaching it.

"So we have to get used to declining rates of birth of all countries around the world," he said. "To make it more feasible, you have to have social security. You have to have something which takes the place of wanting your children to take care of you in your old age. The state has to do it."

While Prof. Hu and Prof. Keen disagree on whether it's necessary to increase the birthrate, they both view technology as an important tool to improve productivity to deal with the decreasing birthrate.

Prof. Keen said we should transition from human labor towards machinery and robotics rather than rely upon the workforce itself.

Prof. Hu agreed that improving efficiency and productivity can help with the changes in age structure, and "we do not have to put all the resources and emphasis on increasing birthrate." However, he said, economic factors aside, a more balanced family structure, meaning more children, can lighten the burden of eldercare and ensure a higher quality of life. 

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