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Child care changes aim to promote third-child policy

By Wang Xiaoyu | China Daily | Updated: 2022-03-10 07:48
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Expanding affordable and reliable nursery care services has emerged as the latest focal point in China's push to raise the birthrate. [LI MIN/CHINA DAILY]

Authorities are working to encourage larger families as a way of addressing recent declines in the nation's birthrate. Wang Xiaoyu reports.

Expanding affordable and reliable nursery care services has emerged as the latest focal point in China's push to raise the birthrate, according to official documents and experts.

During this year's two sessions-the country's largest annual political event, which started on Friday-the question of how to ease the financial burden on parents and encourage them to have more children has become a hot topic among legislators and political advisers, as well as netizens.

On Saturday, seven of the 50 most popular hashtags on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo were related to proposals on marriage and childbearing, such as giving monthly subsidies to families with more than one child and providing free kindergarten care for the third child in every household.

The discussions came as no surprise. Since the third-child policy-which allows all couples to have up to three children rather than two-was announced in late May to address the nation's slowing population growth, all eyes have been on the rollout of supportive measures to raise the birthrate.

The 2022 Government Work Report, released on Saturday at the opening of the fifth session of the 13th National People's Congress, sent a clear signal that concerted efforts will be made this year to tackle the lack of affordable child care that troubles many families.

"We will improve the supporting measures for the third-child policy… and develop public-interest child care services to ease the burden of raising a family," said Premier Li Keqiang, when he delivered the report.

Song Jian, deputy director of the Population Development Studies Center at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said last year's work report mainly set a tone that emphasized the need to adjust family planning policies and make them more inclusive, while the 2022 report laid out concrete measures.

"Based on international experience, supportive measures for a higher fertility rate are usually divided into three categories: financial support, time support and service support," she said in an interview with National Business Daily.

Since the third-child policy took effect, a number of provincial-level regions have extended maternity leave and added paternity and child care leave-a form of time support-in revisions to regulations governing local population and family planning.

"The next step is to ensure implementation," Song said. "Developing nursery care services is an important approach to ramping up service support. It can help solve the dilemma of who looks after the kids after the mother's pregnancy leave ends and before the baby reaches the age to be enrolled in a kindergarten."

Striking a balance

Nursery care services are widely considered to be an effective way of helping to raise the fertility rate, experts said.

That's because such services can help women-who usually shoulder the bulk of child care responsibilities-to retain their jobs and strike a balance between career and family, according to Wang Gewei and Zhao Yaohui, researchers at Peking University in Beijing.

"Although high-income households can opt to hire nannies or ask grandparents to look after the kids so the parents can return to the workplace, low-income families may not be able to do so because they cannot afford nannies, and the grandparents cannot give up their work and solely devote themselves to caring for grandchildren," they wrote in an article published in the journal Fudan Finance Review in January.

The authors said providing high-quality, affordable nursery care services is the key to reducing or preventing the disadvantages that women face once they become mothers-such as being paid less because they work fewer hours-thereby increasing their willingness to have babies.

Mao Zhuoyan, a professor with the School of Labor Economics at the Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, said that public-interest nursery care centers are not determined by whether they are funded publicly or privately.

"Such child care centers should be convenient and accessible, with acceptable fees and guaranteed quality," she said.

Those characteristics have also been highlighted in a draft report written by the National Development and Reform Commission that maps out a development plan for this year.

The document, released on Saturday, said China will develop centrally managed networks of community-based nursery care facilities to promote the sector's healthy development.

A nursery worker in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, who preferred to use her English name, Casey, said the child care institute she works for charges about 2,500 yuan ($395) per baby per month.

"Nearly all the parents seeking a slot with us consider the fees to be in a fair range," she said.

As a frontline worker, she said that for a center to be deemed a public interest facility, it is essential to be considerate and meet reasonable demands from parents.

"For instance, even though the official opening hour for the center is around 8:30 am, parents can drop their kids off earlier, at 7:50 am, so they can go straight to work afterwards," she said.

"In addition, we have adopted both traditional Chinese nursery care methods and Montessori education (a system developed by an Italian physician that aims to develop children's natural interests and activities, rather than relying on formal teaching methods), so parents can rest assured that their child will receive good-quality care, and they will see gradual improvements in their child's habits and cognitive skills."

However, a large number of families are finding it extremely difficult to secure slots at satisfactory day care centers.

Casey said her employer initially capped the number of children per class at about 25, but due to the high demand and the center's growing reputation, each class accepts as many as 30 babies, who are ages 18 months to 3 years old.

Competition for places at the center cooled last year, with classes targeting toddlers age 18 months and younger not even reaching maximum capacity, Casey said. "I think that was caused by the declining number of births in the city," she added.

Consecutive declines

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the number of newborns has declined for five consecutive years, falling to 10.62 million last year.

Despite the declining birthrate, though, there are still an estimated 42 million children age 3 and younger in China, officials said.

Yang Wenzhuang, head of the population surveillance and family development department at the National Health Commission, said that about one-third of babies younger than 3 urgently need child care services, but only 5.5 percent of them can eventually enroll.

"The gap between supply and demand remains large," he said at a news conference in July.

In some developed countries, the rate of nursery attendance is higher than 35 percent, according to authorities.

Liu Xinyi, a mother of two who moved to the United States a couple of years ago, said there are at least four day care centers close to her apartment complex in Houston, Texas. "As long as you are in need, it is very easy to find an available slot here," she said.

"Sending babies-some as young as six weeks-to nursery care facilities is a very normal practice here in the US," she added.

"In China though, the older generation, or the grandparents, tend to argue against the idea, insisting that the mother or a direct relative should take care of babies so they can receive full, undivided attention."

In an interview with, a newspaper published by the capital's federation of trade unions, Chen Bali, a deputy to the Beijing Municipal People's Congress, said complaints about the high cost of child care services are common.

He added that a survey released in November 2020 showed that a nursery care slot at privately funded day care centers in the capital cost about 7,040 yuan a month on average, while only 7.5 percent of such facilities charged less than 3,000.

Hu Peng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said a large number of nursery care facilities are located in shopping malls or office buildings.

"The high rents result in high operating costs. As a result, most working-class people can't afford the fees," he said.

Tackling the shortfall

Recently, the central authorities and local governments have all moved to address the shortage of nursery care services.

According to the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25), a blueprint for the country's economic and social development blueprint during the period, the number of nursery slots per 1,000 children will rise to 4.5 from the recent figure of 1.8.

Mao Zhuoyan, the academic at the Capital University of Economics and Business, said the key to developing affordable nursery care services is to mobilize the participation of all sectors of society.

"Specific measures include ramping up construction of community-based care facilities, supporting employers in providing child care services for employees and encouraging kindergartens that have adequate resources to enroll toddlers ages 2 to 3," she said.

Xiong Bingqi, deputy head of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing, estimated that there would be an excess of kindergarten slots in the next few years.

"It is a great opportunity to take advantage of these empty slots and turn them into nursery care slots to meet the demand," he said.

Wang Lan, head of a kindergarten in Beijing's Xicheng district, said the distribution of related resources in the capital is uneven, so expanding enrollment to include younger babies should be based on local circumstances, and flexible arrangements can be made, such as asking kindergartens to provide such services only on weekends.

Preferential treatment

In Zhengzhou, Henan province, a number of community-based nursery care services have sprouted in recent years.

Since 2018, Gao Linguang, a community official in the city's Zhengdong New Area, has been cooperating with a nursery care company to establish community-based care centers.

He told local media that such a collaboration would allow local authorities to provide preferential policies for businesses, such as waiving rents on public venues, giving discounts on water and electricity bills and issuing subsidies.

In this way, local residents would have access to affordable, quality services, he added.

Casey, the nursery care worker from Jiangsu, said she was heartened to learn that more resources will be invested in the thriving sector in the future. In the meantime, she hoped that more attention would be paid to improving the training and treatment of nursery care workers.

"Taking care of toddlers is quite a demanding job," she said. "But honestly, salaries in this industry are not high at present, and it is not easy to retain experienced staff members."

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