The Year of the Dragon may bring positive baby boom to Asia

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TAIPEI, Taiwan – Governments across East Asia – from China and Taiwan to Japan and South Korea – have been trying to convince women to have more babies. It’s coming alive: China is rapidly running out of the workforce needed to power its manufacturing-oriented economy and is set to lose up to 200 million people -work – or the entire working population of the United States – by 2050.

Their efforts are failing. Birth rates are still falling. But some are hoping for a baby boom, or even a baby boomlet, in the coming year as Saturday marks the start of the Lunar New Year and the start of the Year of the Dragon.

According to Chinese astrology – a nearly two thousand year old system with steep and bold beliefs throughout Asia and in Chinese communities around the world – the dragon is the most auspicious Zodiac animal.

China wants more babies. Women want the right to say no.

As the only mythical creature of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac, it is considered divine and powerful. Many believe that children born in the Year of the Dragon are more likely to be successful and lucky throughout their lives.

Under the system, which assigns characteristics to each animal, some years are less popular, such as the tiger (too wild), the goat (too scary) or the snake (seen as manipulative and clever ). The Year of the Pig, which has a decades-long cycle, has also led to a baby boom. Golden Pigs are said to bring longevity of comfort and wealth.

But no year is as big as the dragon, associated with intelligence, courage and ambition. Couples opt for in vitro fertilization or schedule a Cesarean delivery to ensure their children will be born on time – or even ask doctors to delay delivery. School class sizes increase during dragon years, often requiring additional groups.

On Friday, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged citizens to add a “little dragon” to their families.

The superstition is not entirely unfounded. According to a 2019 study using data from China, those born in the year of the dragon were more likely to score higher in university entrance exams and receive a college education. Girls in the study group were also more likely to be taller.

But the reason, the study concluded, had nothing to do with the cosmos. That was the extra time and money that parents spend on these children.

“People think these dragon children are special and they want to have special children, and when they have those children, they invest in them and expect good things from them. And this makes them successful, and the cycle continues,” said Naci Mocan, professor of economics at Louisiana State University and one of the authors of the study. “That’s why this has been going on for centuries and generations.”

In China, where the Lunar New Year is the most important annual holiday, authorities hope that this age belief will provide a much-needed spike in births. Hospitals across China have been issuing timetables and recommendations telling couples when to have a dragon baby.

“Hold on and seize these few months to scientifically prepare for a baby,” read one notice from Huantai Maternity and Children’s Healthcare Hospital in Shandong province.

Zhai Zhenwu, an adviser to the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told Chinese outlet Times Finance in January that the “very clear” astrological preferences of Chinese citizens meant there was “hope” for a higher fertility rate. year.

The world’s second largest economy is on the brink of a population crisis caused by decades of limiting family sizes. Even as China loosens controls – as of 2021, all married couples are allowed to have three children – and offers subsidies and incentives, younger generations are avoiding marriage and children.

In 2023, new births fell for the seventh year in a row to 9.02 million – about half of what it was in 2017. At this point, China’s population of 1.4 billion is expected to decrease to slightly more half a billion by 2100.

“The idea that the Year of the Dragon will bring good luck to some may help,” said Huang Wenzheng, a demographer and senior fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “If the government can think of more targeted ways to encourage fertility, it could make as much as a 0.01 percent difference in the fertility rate,” he said.

Both Huang and Mocan believe that the year of the dragon could increase by about 1 million new births, to a total count of 10 million for the year. (Births have seen spikes in previous dragon years, nearly 300,000 in 2000 and 900,000 in 2012, according to the Mocan study.)

One idea is an increase in marriages, a trend that researchers have seen before dragon years. In the first three quarters of 2023, the number of marriages in China increased by 4.5 percent compared to the same period last year and is expected to reach 7 million for the year, up from 6.8 million in 2022 .

Sherry Yang, a consultant who connects Chinese women to fertility centers in Kazakhstan, says she has received more inquiries than she expected in the past year because of the state of the Chinese economy. One couple’s goal was to have three dragon children. They did in vitro fertilization and will have triplets in August.

But she attributes most of the demand to the fact that the pandemic has forced many to put their lives on hold.

“There are many people who could not conceive a child in these three years. With all the health codes and regulations, it was just too much to worry about,” she said, referring to China’s strict “zero covid” restrictions that monitored the health of residents and where on the their phones.

Elsewhere in Asia, countries are expecting a baby dragon boomlet. Postpartum care nanny Teresa Tan, whose company operates in Singapore and Malaysia, said she is booked through September, with an increase in tickets of about 40 percent compared to last year. “There has definitely been an impact.”

Cathy Tsai, a consultant at Infancix, a postpartum care center in Taipei, Taiwan, said that over the past few months, clients have been booking rooms as soon as they are seven or eight weeks pregnant. . Most years, mothers wait around 12 weeks to book a place.

Mak Ling-ling, a famous fortune teller in Hong Kong, said she has also received more inquiries, including some from famous women she would not name, about having children this year. .

“Everyone is in a bit of a rush trying to have a baby dragon,” she said. “The zodiac still has a big influence on the birth rates of Chinese people, but the issue now is that the economy is bad. ”

Even more than the zodiac, the economy is probably the main factor influencing the birth rate. Without major improvements in China’s sluggish economy or major revisions, birth rates may not improve significantly.

“Research suggests that zodiac birth timing tends to affect when rather than how many children families eventually have, so it may not help solve the problem of low fertility,” said Poh Lin Tan , a senior researcher at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, refers to studies conducted in Hong Kong.

Huang, the demographer in Beijing, said that Chinese policymakers have not been ambitious enough. “There is no big incentive at the national level, and local governments rely on small amounts of money to provide subsidies, which is not useful at all,” he said.

However, old beliefs are hard to shake. Han Yu, an economist at the University of Memphis in Tennessee who worked on a 2019 study linking parental expectations and the performance of dragon children, would like to have a child this year.

It can be partial. He was also born in the Year of the Dragon and remembers feeling a little special growing up. “I just feel it’s good to have a baby dragon, especially if the father is a dragon,” he said.

Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.

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