Why Taiwan’s falling birth rate has become a national security issue

Christmas is coming to Taipei and the city is at least partially decked out for the season. In Muzha, on the city’s outskirts, the Catholic church has set up a nativity scene. There is as yet no baby in the manger and the scene looks rather forlorn. That’s somehow appropriate for Taiwan, where there is a dearth of actual babies in cradles.

Over the road from the church are two pet-grooming shops, testimony to the changing composition of Taiwanese households. There are more registered cats and dogs in Taiwan than there are children under ten. As the country heads towards its eighth presidential election, to be held on January 13 2024, it is hitting a new low in births per year.

Taiwan’s fertility rate is one of many things on the minds of the three presidential candidates: front-runner Vice President Lai Ching-te, the candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); close rival Hou Yu-ih, running for the once all-powerful KMT; and Ko Wen-je, candidate for Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), the latest of a series of minor parties to make a splash in the country’s lively electoral landscape.

Ko is a populist who offers disaffected youth an alternative to the two large parties. He effectively politicised the fertility rate when he called a press conference on November 7 specifically to discuss responses to the declining birth rate.

Apart from announcing his own ten-point plan, notable for its novel pregnancy bonus, he took the opportunity to wax sarcastic about Hou’s planned third-child bonus and to attack Lai’s record on related policies.

In response, Lai’s team drew attention to Ko’s long history of misogynistic statements such as “unmarried women are like disabled parking spaces” and “[unmarried women] are causing instability and a national security crisis”.

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In fact, all candidates take the problem of the falling birth rate seriously. For three years now, deaths have exceeded births in Taiwan. Only immigration is preventing a real decline in population.

The policies the candidates offer vary more in detail than in substance: the particular amounts of money differ, as do the circumstances under which the money is paid. But in the end, their policies all amount to throwing money at the problem.

Taiwan’s birth rate has become such a cause for concern that presidential candidates such as Hou Yu-ih (centre left) have announced policies to address it.

A long-term problem in Taiwan

The fertility crisis has long been a matter of concern in Taiwan. In a perfect illustration of “be careful of what you wish for”, early population planning targets set by the then-dominant KMT were met and then exceeded in the 1980s. The fertility rate dropped below replacement level in 1983 and has never recovered.

It was identified as an issue of national security in Taiwan’s first national security report, issued in 2006. Since then the issue has been consistently in the news, local and international. It is associated with several negative economic and social indicators: the gradual increase in the burden of the national debt on each individual; the weakening of domestic demand; the reduced supply of labour; the problem of aged care in a super-aged society.

For all these reasons, politicians take the problem seriously. Nonetheless, the fertility rate is a slow burner in Taiwanese politics – it lacks the immediacy of cross-strait relations, widely held to be the main issue in the current political contest.

But there is a meeting point between the two issues. Already many fewer young men are available for military service in Taiwan than there were a decade ago. The air force in particular is low on trained personnel and its fighter pilots are exhausted from the constant need to respond to Chinese jets crossing into Taiwanese air space.

This problem is only to some degree balanced by a parallel problem in China, where the fertility rate (1.45 in 2022) is also in precipitate decline.

On neither side of the Taiwan Strait does anyone have good ideas about how to reverse the fall. Candidates for the election in Taiwan all promise potential parents enhanced financial support while no doubt fully aware of the limited effects of such measures on fertility choices.

In China, President Xi Jinping’s advice to women that they should “play their role in carrying forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation” seems even less likely to yield results.

Older people now outnumber the young in Taiwan.
Antonia Finnane, Author provided (no reuse)

So why are so few people having babies?

Young women in Taiwan tend to explain their preference for pets over babies in terms of financial pressures, particularly the cost of housing. Housing is recognised as a serious problem in Taiwan and all contenders for the presidency are promising to help with housing for couples with children.

But in a society where having children is normatively associated with marriage, being married is generally a prerequisite for enjoying even existing benefits. The fertility rate for married couples in Taiwan is reasonably high, two children being standard. The key question appears not to be why don’t women have children? The question is why don’t women get married?

In Taiwan, as in much of East Asia, marriage avoidance has become a marked phenomenon. In 2021, a mere 50% of young Taiwanese between the ages of 25 and 34 were married.

Of the unmarried group, 70% of the men wanted to get married at some future date. A majority of the unmarried women had no such intention. Similarly, many more unmarried men (61.22%) than unmarried women (42.98%) wanted eventually to have children.

Since housing and raising children are costs for men as well as for women, there is presumably something more to the falling birth rate than simply the financial pressure.

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Analysing the uniformly low and falling birth rates across East Asia, Yen-hsin Alice Cheng argues the problem is grounded in the Confucian cultural bedrock of the region. Family and society are rigidly patriarchal. Workplace organisation and wider societal structures are unfavourable to women.

Historical sex ratios at birth reflect, to varying degrees, a default preference for sons, Japan offering the only exception. Government initiatives frequently land on infertile ground, a phenomenon most notable in South Korea where only a small minority of women and a tiny percentage of men have taken advantage of extremely generous parental leave schemes aimed at arresting the declining birth rate.

In this East Asian mix, Taiwan has a more progressive society than China and a less rigid patriarchy than South Korea. It has high numbers of women participating in politics. Voter turnout among women is large, and the current president is a woman: the redoubtable Tsai Ing-wen. Women in leadership at local level – the all-important position of mayor – outnumber men. The sex ratio at birth has been skewed in recent history but now seems to have settled into a “within normal” range.

Given the relative advantages women enjoy in Taiwan, especially relative to South Korea, it is worth pondering the possible variables for its particularly low birth rate. In a comparative study of mental health in Ukraine, Poland and Taiwan during the first year of the Russo-Ukrainian war, researchers found post-traumatic stress effects among Taiwan respondents were only slightly lower than in Ukraine, with female gender a significant risk factor. Vicarious experience of the war, predicated on the anticipation of conflict in their own country, appears to have prompted a high degree of anxiety in Taiwan.

This finding raises the question of whether, in addition to other social forces informing their life choices, Taiwanese live with an undercurrent of concern about the future of their country. If so, the crisis of national security constituted by the declining birthrate would seem to be part of a vicious cycle, where a lack of security in geopolitical terms is informing decisions about whether or not to marry and have children.

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