There are increasing activity centers in China’s shopping malls similar to this one in Beijing, where children bake cakes on Children’s Day on June 1, 2020.

Zhao Jun | China Intelligence Service | Getty Images

BEIJING – For many Chinese, government restrictions are no longer the main reason they don’t have more children.

This poses a greater challenge for the Chinese authorities as they try to contain the negative economic impact of decades of policies restricting households to one child.

The central government announced Monday that any couple could now have three children, sparking an online discussion – largely about why having children, let alone three, is impractical in modern China.

More than 30,000 respondents in a simple online survey by the state-run Xinhua News Agency overwhelmingly said they would not consider having more children because of the new policy. The poll was soon deleted.

High educational costs and insufficient support for maternity leave and retirement have contributed to growing childlessness. The easing of restrictions on two children per couple in recent years has done little to halt the decline in the birth rate and save a population of 1.4 billion from aging rapidly.

The new policy is “totally inadequate to reverse the demographic decline,” said Rory Green, senior China economist at TS Lombard, on CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Tuesday. He said structural changes, such as improved access to childcare, are “much more important than simply removing the numerical limit on the number of children one can have”.

“One of the jokes on the internet after this (new policy) came out was, ‘Why would I want another child when I have four older parents to look after, already two children and possibly nine grandchildren after that,” he said.

Marriage registrations are going down

On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, the four hottest hashtags on Tuesday morning revolved around the new three-child policy. Each hashtag had a few hundred million views.

A popular post under the hashtag “What will the three-child policy bring?” Discussed how it would likely become more difficult for women to embark on a professional career.

“If you are not married, human resources will worry about whether you need to take marital leave,” the Chinese-language Post said, according to a CNBC translation. “If you’re married with no children, HR will see if you need to take maternity leave.”

“If you are married to one child, the human resources department will worry about whether you will have a second child,” said the post. “If you are married and have two children, HR will consider whether you will have a third child. If you are married and have three children, HR will see if you can still work with three children.”

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Another major concern of Chinese couples is whether they can afford a good school district home, extracurricular courses, and many other expenses to raise a child they believe will be successful in a highly competitive environment good job can get.

The frenetic rat race within often elitist, close social groups in China has received so much attention recently that it has popularized its own term – “nei juan” – which New York magazine translated as “Involution” last month.

Even before children are considered, fewer people are starting families. The number of marriages in mainland China fell 12% last year, a seventh decrease, according to data from Wind Information.

Too little too late?

In the case of China, the country is much poorer than Japan, so its productivity growth has more leeway to keep the economy from falling into Japan’s predicament in the near future, Shaun Roache, Asia-Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings, said Tuesday CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia”.

However, he found that China is aging faster than Japan and Western Europe, which poses a problem that needs to be addressed quickly.

“When people feel like the whole of society is aging very, very quickly, they worry about who is going to pay their pension. They are saving a lot more and consuming less,” Roache said. “You get an unbalanced economy that creates problems in the real estate market that makes the economy too dependent on exports.”