Amid fears of a demographic crisis in China after the country’s birthrate reached its lowest level on record last year, officials in one of its most populous provinces have launched a policy that allows unmarried people to register the births of an unlimited number of children.
The move by the health commission in Sichuan province, which is home to nearly 84 million people, makes unmarried parents eligible for benefits that were previously reserved for married couples. It comes after the country’s population shrank last year for the first time in six decades, as the birthrate declined to 6.77 per 1,000 people, down from 7.52 in the previous year.
As part of a nationwide registry system, married couples in Sichuan province were most recently allowed to register the births of up to two children to qualify for benefits including insurance and paid leave. Under the new policy, beginning on Feb. 15, unmarried parents in Sichuan can register with no cap on the number of children.
“This is the first time in 40 years that a province has lifted a birth quota,” said Wang Feng, professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. “There was so much discussion around the lifting of the one-child policy … but this is the first time, with this province, that the government finally gave up this desire to tell people how many births they could have.”
The policy stands out as a stark shift from the years of control that limited most families to a single child since 1980. China’s one-child policy meant decades of forced abortions, sterilizations and the coercive use of intrauterine devices. It led to a rise in sex-selective abortions that resulted in men outnumbering women.
Although the rules were updated to allow for two children in 2016, that change has done little to keep the population from shrinking, a threshold that the country officially crossed in 2022, years earlier than experts had predicted.
The demographic concerns threaten the vision of an ascendant China that has been a cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s leadership, as an aging workforce jeopardizes the country’s labor-reliant economy.
“What has been announced in Sichuan shows how desperate the government is now,” said Wang, given “both the news of the arrival of population decline and how ineffective the measures over the last five years have been.”
State media described the policy in Sichuan as an “exploratory step.” An official from the Sichuan health commission told local media that the policy was intended to safeguard the rights of single mothers, not to encourage unmarried people to become parents. The commission’s announcement said the policy would promote “long-term and balanced population development.”
Though the policy allows unmarried parents to register the birth of their children, it does not grant the children household registration status, or hukou, which determines access to public services like health care and education, according to Yun Zhou, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan. That means people who become parents outside the structure of heterosexual marriage do not have the same rights as married couples, said Zhou.
According to a 2021 survey by the Communist Youth League of China, 44 percent of young women and 25 percent of young men in China’s urban areas reported they did not want to get married. Zhou suggested that by including births that would previously have gone unreported, the policy could be intended as a way for the government to gather more accurate data on people who choose not to marry.
To make registration easier, the health commission encouraged parents to use the WeChat social media platform to submit birth records, and said while parents should register births ahead of time, registrations would be accepted retroactively for births that had already taken place.
Unmarried women have previously sued for their childbirth expenses to be covered by insurance, as well as for access to egg freezing and other fertility treatments. Though the new policy in Sichuan will finally allow them to access some of the benefits long granted to married couples, single parents face many challenges in a society built around single-child households, where not only two parents but two sets of grandparents are expected to focus on a child’s development.
Parents who do not have this support system face high child-care costs in addition to social stigma, said Zhou. “In order for this new policy to incentivize birth, it would mean that people were not having children because they could not register the births — and we know that’s not the case.”
The policy could be a welcome change for women with access to education and resources, said Feinian Chen, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. But because it will do little to alleviate the economic and social burdens single parents face, it is unlikely to incentivize an increase in births, she said.
Despite the demographic crisis, some young people in China have cited the high cost of child care among the factors influencing their decision not to have children. As ideas like “lying flat” and “letting it rot” — similar to “quiet quitting,” and resigning oneself to letting a bad situation disintegrate further — have trended on social media, some young people have reported that their disillusionment is compounded by rising unemployment and high costs of housing and child care.
“When you look at the costs, we have to ask, do they fall equally on men and women?” Wang asked. “Or do they fall disproportionately on women’s careers and personal freedom?”