BEIJING — The Singapore government has deployed financial incentives and even Mentos mints to increase births. In Russia, more money in mothers’ pension accounts and “Conception Day,” with time off from work, have helped. Be it Germany or Japan, state-paid bonuses aim to amplify the patter of little feet in homes amid sagging fertility rates.
Not in China. The government’s powerful family-planning apparatus still fines married couples who have more than two children and women who give birth out of wedlock, despite a looming demographic crisis in the country.
Findings from a 2015 government census show that the average Chinese woman has 1.05 children — a legacy of the one-child policy that changed on Jan. 1 to a two-child policy. It is the lowest fertility rate in the world, according to People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
The fines, known as social maintenance fees, can run up to tens of thousands of dollars and close an avenue to increase birthrates, critics say.
“Especially with these falling birthrates, the right thing to do would be to allow single women to have children,” Wu Youshui, a lawyer in Hangzhou who specializes in reproductive issues, said in an interview.
“But in fact, they’re still fining people,” he said. “A lot. People see it and don’t understand why.”
Last week, three civil society groups in the southern city of Guangzhou issued a report calling for greater reproductive freedom for single women to counter the country’s low fertility rate. The issue also affects lesbians, the groups said, because same-sex marriage is not permitted.
“We had a gay focus, but it’s closely related to the situation facing all women,” said Mary Chin, a law student who provided legal analysis for the report, “Single Women’s Reproductive Rights: A Research Report on Policy and Lived Experience.”
“If you’re not married, you’re classified as single,” said Ms. Chin, who is transgender. “And you can only marry the opposite sex.”
Chinese law states that citizens have the right to give birth, she said. But they can exercise that right only within a complex system of national and local family-planning regulations. Many provinces impose fines on people who have children outside marriage.
In the report, the groups — Rainbow Lawyers, Genderwatch and Gender Equality Net — urge the government to lift its two-child policy and its restrictions on single people having children.
They also suggest that social maintenance fees be abolished and that single women be given access to in vitro fertilization. Chinese hospitals do not offer I.V.F. services to single women because they do not have a government-issued marriage certificate and the necessary birth permit.
June Chen, 32, struggled for seven years to have the twins she now has with her female partner.
“State hospitals were out of the question,” Ms. Chen said. “They wouldn’t help single women.”
She said that a private hospital in Beijing was willing to overlook their lack of a marriage certificate and birth permit, but that they were cheated, charged double the typical price for I.V.F. by doctors who knew their sexual orientation, and offered poor medical care. The treatment was unsuccessful.
The couple traveled to Thailand to undergo I.V.F. Their girls, now 9 months old, were born in Los Angeles.
“Right now, a lot of single women and lesbians have to go to the United States to have a baby,” Ms. Chin said.
Underlying the debate over reproductive rights is the low fertility rate revealed in the mini-census last year.
While some findings were released in April, others — including the fertility rate of 1.05 children per woman — became widely available only in late October. The census is published in the 2016 Statistical Yearbook.
The National Health and Family Planning Commission, by contrast, says China’s fertility rate is 50 percent higher, at about 1.6 children per woman, a figure that appears in international databases.
So the census estimate shocked some business leaders, scholars and demographers, who contemplate a future of relatively few young people supporting many older citizens.
“Removing the impact of technological progress, China’s economy will shrink and its efficiency weaken,” wrote James Jianzhang Liang, the chief executive and co-founder of Ctrip, a major travel company, in an article in Caixin magazine.
“In the end we will forfeit synergies, people’s incomes will fall and national vigor will decline,” Mr. Liang wrote.
Echoing widespread surprise at the low fertility figure, another article, in Caijing magazine, was headlined “Experts Ask if There Was a Mistake.”
But the article quoted a demographer, Huang Wenzheng, the founder of the Population and the Future website, as saying that the lower rate was possible, as it reflected similar findings from more granular analyses conducted at the local level.
In producing the higher number, the health and family planning commission uses factors other than census results to calculate the fertility rate, including school enrollment and vaccination rates, contending that people underreport births to evade fines.
Dr. Fuxian Yi, a critic of Chinese birth policies who is based in the United States, says that while some births are hidden, national censuses count not just newborns but also older children and show broad consistency over time, meaning that subterfuge is not on the scale that the commission asserts.
“The census figures are largely correct,” said Dr. Yi, a reproductive scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in an interview.
The commission did not respond to a request for comment.
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