Picture: Michelle Ye Hee Lee/The Washington Post – Nurses care for newborns at Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto, Japan, on June 10, 2022.
By Miriam Berger and Rick Noack
China has long been associated with its coercive one-child policy. After it took effect in the late 1970s, population growth began to slow – which was the point. The country’s leaders wanted to ensure that economic growth would outstrip demographic growth, however steep the price. Particularly stark was the decline in female babies, as some families prioritised keeping boys instead.
The policy did allow for some exceptions, and by 2016, the government relented somewhat, shifting to a two-child rule. In 2021, two became three, for married couples, as Chinese leaders became alarmed about growth trends and scrambled to respond.
After years of slowing growth, China’s population shrank in 2022 for the first time in 60 years – officially declining by 850,000 people to a new total of 1.4118 billion. The last time China faced population decline was in 1961, three years into a devastating famine in the Mao era. The decline was driven by a shrinking birthrate, which according to official records, dropped to its lowest level on record last year.
China, however, is not alone. Many other countries, including Cuba, Germany, Hungary and Japan, face declining birthrates. But each of them has responded differently. Here’s how some governments have grappled with the trend.
China’s birthrate has been falling for years. The moves to two- and three-child policies have not halted the trend.
But population decline came sooner than some expected. In 2019, the United Nations and leading Chinese scholars predicted that the population would not decline until the early 2030s, in part because of declining death rates.
Now, the government is increasingly worried and looking to slow the trend it set in motion long ago. The elderly population is quickly growing, while the number of young people, the core of the workforce, continues to decline.
The problem, experts say, is that just because people can legally have another child now does not mean they will. A host of calculations goes into the decision to procreate, including affordability. There have not, for example, been major overhauls of child-care and paternity-leave policies to make additional children more feasible.
Birthrates in much of Latin America are declining – but Cuba stands out. The country’s low birth and fertility rates, coupled with steady emigration, means the population has long been shrinking. At the same time, Cuba has the oldest population in Latin America, putting further pressure on working-age people.
“Developed countries have low infant mortality, birth and fertility rates, but their populations don’t drop, because they receive immigrants,” Antonio Aja Díaz, with the Centre for Demographic Studies at the University of Havana, told the Miami Herald. “But that’s not the case of Cuba.”
Part of the problem is that for years the government pushed political opponents – and anyone seeking a different kind of life – to emigrate. For now, Cuba’s demographic factors do not appear to be changing. If anything, the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with tighter US sanctions under the Trump administration, appears to have further increased emigration from the island to the United States, continuing to drive down the population.
Germany and China both have declining birthrates coupled with population growth, but for very different reasons.
While birthrates in Germany are steadily low, the country’s overall population size has continued to grow because of the influx in the mid-2010s of more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers. These new demographics have also been a boost for Europe’s largest economy: Without this new generation, Germany would have been beset by an aging workforce and not enough people to maintain it. Overall, the United States has had a similar trajectory to Germany: population growth because of immigration counteracting slowing birthrates.
But in a possible harbinger of changes to come, the country has been reducing its openness to new migrants. Germany’s population reached a record 83.2 million in 2019, though the rate of growth was the lowest since 2012. The population of people 15 to 24 years old is also steadily declining and reached a new low in 2021, according to the Federal Statistical Office of Germany, Destatis.
In the face of population decline, Hungary’s government has decided that state-controlled fertility clinics could be the answer.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban is a staunch nationalist vehemently opposed to immigration. So he is turning to government-run fertility clinics, one of a number of top-down policies he has instituted aimed at reversing Hungary’s falling birthrate and labour shortages without having to let anyone new, and not ethnically Hungarian, into the country.
In December 2019, Orban’s government announced the purchase of six private clinics with in vitro fertilisation as a specialty. Facing a matter of “national strategic importance”, the government said it was taking control of the IVF facilities and exempting them from competition restrictions. As of 2020, the state now offers free fertility-treatment drugs in these clinics. Orban has also established tax and loan benefits for families in his effort to kick-start more reproduction.
Starting in summer 2022, Orban went further and banned private clinics from offering IVF treatments. His government said it would make the procedure even more accessible. Critics said the move drastically reduced the number of options for women.
Reproduction in Japan was never state-controlled as in China, but birthrates have been on a steady decline.
While many economically developed countries are facing drops, the numbers in Japan are stark: The population is expected to decline from 127 million in 2018 to 88 million by 2065. Every year, 500 schools close because there are not enough students to fill them. Japan needs more babies or an influx of new people to keep the economy growing.
In 2022, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Hirokazu Matsuno, called the situation “critical”. The government has mainly relied on subsidies to cover the costs of pregnancy, childbirth and child care.
Yet discussions around population rates in Japan continue to skirt a politically charged word: “immigration”. In 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government proposed a controversial (by Japan’s standards) proposal to bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers. The bill sparked outrage among some lawmakers, who decried it as a back door to starting an immigration process.
This strategy also faced criticism among those who favoured a more open approach to immigration.
“The problem is that Japan’s unwillingness to acknowledge that it is accepting immigrants means no government funds are allocated for integration efforts, and there is no law against hate speech or discrimination against foreigners,” The Washington Post’s Simon Denyer reported.
Miriam Berger is a staff writer reporting on foreign news for The Washington Post from Washington, D.C. Before joining The Post in 2019 she was based in Jerusalem and Cairo and freelance reported around the Middle East, as well as parts of Africa and Central Asia. Rick Noack is a Paris-based correspondent covering France for The Washington Post. Previously, he was a foreign affairs reporter for The Post based in Berlin. He also worked for The Post from Washington, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.