China faces continuing fertility drop across all regions, new study finds

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In a recent study published in Scientific Reports, researchers from China used the national population census data from 2020.

They implemented the reserve survival method to understand the temporal trends in total fertility rates and investigated the regional variations and differences in total fertility rates between urban and rural areas between 2000 and 2020.

Study: A reassessment of trends and rural–urban/regional differences in the total fertility rate in China, 2000–2020: analyses of the 2020 national census data. Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.comStudy: A reassessment of trends and rural–urban/regional differences in the total fertility rate in China, 2000–2020: analyses of the 2020 national census data. Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock.com

Background

The total fertility rate is defined as the average number of children a woman will bear if she lives till the end of her childbearing years and experiences age-related changes in fertility rates over time.

It indicates lifetime fertility intricately tied to demographic changes and sustainable development. Declining total fertility rates are often thought to result from a decrease in the desire to have children and have a significant implication on social development and population health.

China, given its prolonged and strict policies on birth control, has had controversy surrounding its declining fertility levels, with many demographers believing that the official statistics have underreported the issues related to lower fertility rates.

These underestimations of total fertility rates are believed to be due to difficulties in data collection due to factors such as migration from rural areas to urban ones, as well as penalties such as wage reductions that are imposed upon failure to follow family planning initiatives.

About the study

In the present study, the researchers used the national population census data from 2020 to investigate the temporal trends between 2000 and 2020 in the total fertility rates in China and compared those to the statistics reported by the government.

They also examined the regional variations and differences in total fertility rates between rural and urban regions to understand heterogeneities in fertility rates.

After enforcing a very strict one-child policy for years, China started selectively allowing couples to have two children in 2013. Subsequently, the two-child policy was made universal in 2015, and in 2021, a three-child policy was also passed.

However, based on significant variations in socioeconomic and sociodemographic conditions between the urban and rural areas and across geographic regions in China, the pace at which the total fertility rates have declined has varied.

The implementation of the one-child policy itself was highly variable across the country. Residents in urban regions were required to strictly adhere to the one-child policy, while rural residents were provided with a second child in case the first child was a female.

Additionally, rural residents of several northwestern and southwestern provinces were not required to adhere to the one-child rule, causing fertility levels to be significantly heterogeneous across the country.

Apart from the national census data, the present study also utilized information from intercensal sample surveys and censuses carried out by the National Bureau of Statistics of China between 2000 and 2019.

The total fertility rates were calculated based on the age-specific fertility rates for a single year, and the reserve survival method was applied to estimate the total fertility rates for previous years.

The total fertility rates were also calculated for the seven regions defined by the standard geographical classification of China.

Results

The results showed that the total fertility rates estimated from the national population census data of 2020 were consistently higher than those reported in the government statistics, with significant differences in the reported and estimated total fertility rates before 2020.

Furthermore, while the total fertility rates increased substantially after the two-child policy was passed in 2015, the rates have experienced intermittent declines since, exhibiting a wave-like pattern in the temporal trends.

There were notable differences between the urban and rural regions, with women in the urban areas having total fertility rates that decreased below 1.5 in some years, while the women in rural areas had fertility rates above 1.8.

However, the study found that there was a steady decrease in the differences in fertility rates between rural and urban areas over time.

Analysis of the regional variations across the seven geographic regions indicated that the total fertility rates in all regions declined between 2010 and 2020, with over 25% decreases in total fertility rates observed in the central, eastern, northern, and northwestern regions.

Conclusions

Overall, the study found that the total fertility rates in China over the previous two decades were not as low as those reported by the government statistics. However, the country still faces the risk of low fertility levels across all regions and sociodemographic areas.

The researchers believe that relaxing the birth-control policies alone is not sufficient, and the government needs to implement social policies that will support couples in bearing and bringing up children.

Journal reference:
Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Written by

Dr. Chinta Sidharthan

Chinta Sidharthan is a writer based in Bangalore, India. Her academic background is in evolutionary biology and genetics, and she has extensive experience in scientific research, teaching, science writing, and herpetology. Chinta holds a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the Indian Institute of Science and is passionate about science education, writing, animals, wildlife, and conservation. For her doctoral research, she explored the origins and diversification of blindsnakes in India, as a part of which she did extensive fieldwork in the jungles of southern India. She has received the Canadian Governor General’s bronze medal and Bangalore University gold medal for academic excellence and published her research in high-impact journals.

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