The Chinese Communist Party is used to getting its way. How frustrated it must be at the refusal of Chinese women to have more babies.
The 2021 birth data for China is bad, and it's a fair bet that this year's will be worse. Policies announced last decade to head off massive population decline didn't have nearly enough effect, so last year we saw further measures, and this year there are even more. Still more are coming.
China has 1.4 billion people and last year welcomed 10.62 million newly born ones, official data confirmed this month. Because 10.14 million died, the natural increase was 480,000, only 0.03 per cent.
That near-stability would probably be welcome (everyone in China complains about crowding), except that it won't last.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when old family-size traditions were stronger and many women obeyed Chairman Mao Zedong's exhortations to have more babies, people were typically born in China at a rate of 20-25 million a year. So, soon they'll be dying at about the same pace.
Worse, the number of babies popping out each year is dropping alarmingly. The 2021 figure was down 12 per cent from 2020 and an amazing 41 per cent from the recent peak of 17.86 million in 2016.
The trend in baby production had been fairly flat before 2016, when it got just a temporary lift from the phasing out of the famous one-child policy in the preceding three years.
Achieving a sustained upward trend will be hard, because having just one child has been usual in Chinese cities for decades and is increasingly common in the countryside. The great majority of young city adults who are thinking about family size did not grow up with brothers or sisters.
Economic weakness amid the global pandemic no doubt contributed to last year's drop. This year, Chinese couples must be hesitating even more, worried about risks of unemployment. The party is damaging business by locking things down left, right and centre as it persists with a zero-COVID strategy long after the rest of the world has moved on.
Since there's a lag of at least nine months between a decision to have a baby and actually getting one, 2023 birth numbers might not look good, either.
Quite possibly, China's population has just passed its all-time high and begun a long-predicted decline.
This presents all the problems of population ageing that have been discussed in developed countries for decades. As the years pass, more retirees will need to be supported by fewer working-age people, who will have to be taxed accordingly.
That alone would be enough to worry the CCP, but the party is no doubt also considering the long-term strategic implications. A shrinking population and especially workforce will detract from China's relative economic and military weight.
Meanwhile, immigration countries, notably the US and Australia, can keep expanding their workforces.
Since Beijing didn't get good enough results last decade from raising the general limit from one child to two, in 2021 it increased the maximum to three and announced other measures to encourage fertility.
Why the government still feels a need to have any limit is unclear, but maybe it has something to do with a desire to put a lid on population growth among Uighurs. They are Turkic Muslims who live in western China and tend to have more kids than people of the majority Han ethnicity. The party distrusts them.
Presumably alarmed by the latest reports of quiet maternity wards, the government issued a policy guideline for fertility-promotion measures in August. In the way of Chinese public administration, this stated in general terms what the national leadership wanted; now departments, provinces, local governments and state companies are expected to jump to attention and get things done.
What the central government wants is support or rewards for child-bearing in tax deductions, housing finance and access, employment, and education. Provincial and local governments above the level of towns must provide institutions for pre-natal and post-natal care, and there will be better access to childcare: nurseries, kindergartens and after-hours supervision in schools.
The central government also wants companies to make life easier for employees with children by being more flexible about when and where work must be done.
It's a spectacular and costly set of social policies, and we'll see whether it produces much result.
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Notice that all the benefits must be showered on pregnancies and child-rearing that would have happened anyway, as well as on the additions that the policy aims to promote. That's a big problem with fertility measures in any country: they cost a lot for each extra baby.
The government isn't waiting to see whether the results will be enough. A report to a major party meeting last month said a policy system to promote fertility would be established.
There is probably overlap between that and what was announced in August, but the China Daily, a government mouthpiece, quotes experts saying more measures are coming.
One to watch out for will be a propaganda campaign. After all, it worked for Mao.
But maybe it won't for Xi Jinping.
Brainwashing is impressively effective in China in relation to politics and international relations. But people have strong views on how they want to run their own lives.
Women in China these days are far better educated and have greater career ambition and lifestyle expectations than their grandmothers and great-grandmothers.
Still, propaganda may be worth giving a go. For a slogan, how about "Have one for mum, one for dad and one for the country"?
- Bradley Perrett was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.