BEIJING – China should further ease population controls by lowering one of the world’s highest marriage ages to encourage more births as the nation grows old, according to a lawmaker.
Huang Xihua, a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC) gathering in Beijing, proposes cutting the minimum marriage age to 18 for both sexes and shifting policy to encourage more children. Under current law, men must be 22 to marry and women must be 20.
“The high marriageable age limit was introduced with the population controls,” Huang said in an interview, adding that the change will protect young couples in de facto marriages as well as their children, who cannot obtain the “hukou” residency registrations required to access many social services under existing regulations. “Now we have already allowed two babies, and we should give that choice back to people.”
More than 30 years of social engineering under the one-child policy has left the world’s most populous country with too few young people to support an aging society, fueling the risk of rising labor costs, lost competitiveness, and an overburdened social welfare system. China moved to address the demographic time bomb in 2015 by allowing couples to have two children, yet the number of new births still fell short of expectations.
After loosening the policy, officials estimated an increase of 4 million additional births a year through 2020. The 2016 rise was less than half that amount as the high cost of child care and years of dissuading people from having children tempered new births. Meanwhile, the country’s latest population development plan, released in January, projects that about a quarter of China’s population will be 60 or older by 2030.
Huang, 51, a delegate from Huizhou, in southern Guangdong province who is currently working in Tibet, holds a doctorate in ecology. She says human society is like an ecosystem because it needs ample offspring to remain stable and balanced. She’s been campaigning to relax birth control policies since 2008, and she said her previous efforts were met with derision.
Her plan to lower age limits was labeled as “absurd” by some critics in online forums when she first proposed it in 2012, setting off an internet debate that dissuaded her from advocating for the measure until now. While the proposal remains controversial, she said attitudes toward birth planning policies are now changing.
NPC delegates at the annual meeting have discussed measures to encourage more births. The ministers of health and finance both mentioned the possibility of financial incentives to encourage couples to have a second child as a way to offset costs that discourage parents. Huang also proposed lifting restrictions on and subsidizing families who want multiple kids.
Huang’s fellow Guangdong delegate, He Youlin, says the time for re-evaluation has come.
“People’s minds have changed,” He said in an interview. “They won’t have many babies if the government doesn’t provide ample measures to help. We need to take steps to change moms who are willing to have babies but dare not do so into moms who are happy and assured to have babies.”
There are signs the government is gearing up for many more births.
China will add 89,000 maternity beds over three years to help hospitals cope with rising demand from the second-child policy, according to Health and Family Planning Commission Minister Li Bin. Quality neonatal treatment will be ensured to better meet the needs of women, especially those 35 or older who want a second child, she said on the sidelines of the NPC. The number of pediatricians will also be increased to handle an expected uptick in births since the end of the one-child policy.
Still, the government has strictly controlled family planning for decades to keep a tight lid on population by monitoring or mandating everything from marriage to contraception to abortion.
Both economic burdens and social challenges prevent women from having more children. Some face discrimination when looking for work, while others without child care must quit jobs, He said. The government should cut income tax, subsidize child care facilities and finance maternity leave to support families, He said.
Still, He doesn’t agree with Huang on lifting all limits on child births. Only poor families in less developed areas would choose to have more kids, possibly increasing poverty and further limiting girls’ opportunities to be educated, He said. Lowering the marriage age could have social consequences, prompting teenagers to start dating earlier and get married on impulse, He said.He, a 62-year-old retired high-school headmaster from Zhongshan, said when he began advocating for a nationwide two-child policy in 2010, media outlets wouldn’t report on it and he couldn’t get enough fellow delegates to sign a letter in 2012 supporting the proposal. But more and more people came around to his side since then, along with reporters, and he now gets greeting cards and flowers from mothers around the country.
“More babies not only benefit the families, but also the country,” He said. “The nation should do its duty and help families to raise the children together.”
Ingrained social norms could also offset the effects of lifting the age limit as people marry later, particularly in urban areas. The average first marriage age is about 26, according to a government-backed survey in 2015. Men in Shanghai marry after 30, on average.
“Offering people the right to marry and encouraging them to marry at a young age are utterly different. You can choose to get married at 28, 38 or 48,” Huang said. “People are getting married later and later anyway, and lowering the limits won’t change that trend.”
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