China eyes ‘dragon’ baby boom
Popular totem, stable society, improving supportive policies enhance people’s confidence in fertility: experts
Published: Feb 22, 2024 07:08 PM
A couple hold their newly born 'dragon' baby in the Wuxi Yihe Obstetrics and Hynecology Hospital on February 10, 2024. Photo: VCG

A couple hold their newly born "dragon" baby in the Wuxi Yihe Obstetrics and Hynecology Hospital on February 10, 2024. Photo: VCG

Nancy Tang sighs in frustration when seeing the negative result on the pregnancy test kit, again. She writes a private post on social media that is only visible to herself: "If I don't get pregnant soon, I'm gonna miss the 'dragon baby.'"

Both Tang and her husband hope to have a "dragon baby" this year. They believe that the dragon, the mythical creature in ancient Chinese legend, is an auspicious symbol, and having a baby born in the Year of the Dragon is "a pretty cool thing."

Tang is among a growing couples of childbearing age who are eager to have babies in this Year of the Dragon. They make no secret of their preference for the Chinese "Dragon" zodiac sign, and they very much expect to get pregnant by March - so that their babies will be born before the end of January 2025, the start of the Year of the Snake.

Chinese demographers predicted that the "dragon baby fever" is likely to cause a small baby boom this year, a positive sign of people's confidence in China's economy and social policies. 

Many places in China have inded experienced a small babyboom since the Year of the Dragon, with the birth rate from early 2024 to now increasing by more than 10 percent compared to the same period last year, according to a report of team led by macro policy analyst Ren Zeping released on March 12.

However, in the long term, due to the gradual disappearance of the fertility accumulation effect, low fertility rates, and the continuous decline in the number of women of childbearing age, it will be difficult to reverse the downward trend in the birth rate without substantial and effective pro-natal policies being implemented, the report noted.

Obsession for a 'dragon baby'

Tang is a 35-year-old teacher in Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. She lives far apart from her husband, who works long-term in the Xizang Autonomous Region.

During the summer and winter vacations in 2023, Tang traveled nearly 1,000 kilometers to Xizang region, living there with her husband for several weeks each time. The biggest task for the couple was to conceive a baby, particularly, a baby that would be born this year - the Year of the Dragon.

The long journeys were just a small part of the many efforts Tang made in the past year for the anticipated "dragon baby." To be healthier and more "pregnancy-appropriate," Tang was prescribed traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture sessions for months to "improve the endocrine system."

"I've even been to the temples, praying to the Buddha to have a 'dragon baby' soon," she said.

Similarly, Xiao Ling, a 34-year-old woman working in Beijing, is also looking forward to a "dragon baby."

"I did not have a preference for a 'dragon baby' at first. But my mom consulted a  fortune teller who said that a 'dragon baby' would benefit me according to my shengchen bazi, and a baby in the next year of the snake would negatively affect me," Xiao said. 

Shengchen bazi means "the date of birth and the eight characters of the horoscope." These eight characters are translated from the birth information - year, month, day, and hour - into four pairs of distinct Chinese characters, which ancient Chinese people believed contained the secrets of a person's fortune. 

"I know it is a kind of superstition, but as long I as I have heard it, it is hard to get it out of my mind. In Chinese culture, the dragon symbolizes power, nobility, and intelligence. I have a reserved personality, so I think a 'dragon baby' may complement me well," Xiao told the Global Times.

"But, anyway, I will embrace my baby whenever it comes, my only wish is that it is healthy," Xiao noted. 

Five dragon babies sleep at the Xiangyang No.1 People's Hospital in Xiangyang, Central China's Hubei Province, on February 10, 2024. Photo: VCG

Five "dragon" babies sleep at the Xiangyang No.1 People's Hospital in Xiangyang, Central China's Hubei Province, on February 10, 2024. Photo: VCG

A surge in pregnancy

The Dragon is undoubtedly the most favored sign among all the 12 Chinese zodiacs or animal signs.

Many foreign celebrities have expressed their affection for this special mythical creature. On a late-night show, US actor and film producer Nicolas Cage once shared he thought he was born in the Year of the Dragon, and therefore got a dragon tattoo. But he later discovered that he was actually born in the Year of the Rabbit according to the lunar Chinese calendar. 

"I had [an] incredible identity crisis," Cage joked. 

Many Chinese people also refer to themselves as "descendants of the dragon." On China's lifestyle-oriented social media app Little Red Book, or Xiaohongshu, a recent survey covering some 148,000 users showed that almost one in three respondents like the dragon the most, unsurprisingly ranking top among all the 12 animal signs.

Chinese people's preference for "dragon babies" has been intuitively reflected in hospitals. Across the country, many hospitals revealed that the numbers of pregnant and "lying-in" women have surged in the last two or three months, to the extent that a few renowned maternity hospitals and maternity departments in some general hospitals have no spare beds at times, according to media reports. 

In Shanghai, several major maternity hospitals have seen an increase in the number of obstetrics service registrations. At the Obstetrics & Gynecology Hospital of Fudan University, the number in January grew by 14 percent compared to the same period in 2021. Its previous obvious growth was in 2012, also a Year of the Dragon, Gu Weirong, deputy director of the hospital, told local media Shanghai Observer.

In Beijing, a woman surnamed Yang witnessed the unusually busy gynecology and obstetrics department in the second half of 2023.

Yang is expecting to have her "dragon baby" in May. She told the Global Times she was amazed that, when she went to the gynecology and obstetrics department at the hospital where her husband works in November 2023 to register, medical staff told her that the beds for May 2024 had been fully booked. 

Yang said she learned from medical staff that the workload of the department's ultrasound room at the end of 2023 was up to four times that of the same period in 2022.

"Part of the reason is that people are paying more and more attention to antenatal care. Another reason is that there are indeed more pregnant women," Yang said.

Yang's observation echoed the expectation of some experts for a minor baby boom in 2024 caused by various effects.

The first effect is the preference for the Dragon as a zodiac sign in Chinese culture, Zhai Zhenwu, China Population Association resident and a professor at Renmin University of China, told the Global Times, referring to a similar baby boom that occurred on the Chinese mainland in 2012, also the Year of the Dragon.  

Second, many women who postponed pregnancy plans during the COVID-19 pandemic period started to get pregnant after Chinese people stepped out of shadow of the pandemic and kicked off a new phase of life, Zhai said. 

Yuan Xin, a professor at the Institute of Population and Development at Nankai University's School of Economics, agreed with Zhai and noted a third major effect. "Improving fertility support policies in China will also encourage people to have larger families," Yuan said.

Chinese think tank YuWa Population Research on Wednesday released a report on the cost of raising a child in China. According to the report, which is based on the China Statistical Yearbook 2023, in 2022, the average cost of raising a child from birth to the age of 17 in China was 538,000 yuan ($7,372). 

When compared with GDP, the average cost of raising a child in China until the age of 18 was 6.3 times China's GDP per capita in 2022, higher than many countries including Japan (4.26 times), the US (4.11 times), and Germany (3.64 times), read the report.

Zhai refused to comment on the results of the report, questioning its reliability as it is based on macro statistics. However, he agreed that the high cost is a major factor that prevents some Chinese couples from having children.

Chinese authorities have made various efforts to help reduce fertility costs in recent years, Zhai noted. Based on that, he called for more measures in the field of education, such as establishing a high-quality inclusive childcare system for preschool children.

Some demographers believed the possible temporary baby boom in the Year of the Dragon is unlikely to change the overall trend of declining birth rates, but it is nonetheless a positive sign, as more babies being born implies people's confidence in China's robust economy, good social order, and an improved fertility support policy.

Nurses take care of dragon babies at the First Hospital of Anhui University of Science and Technology in Huainan, East China's Anhui Province, on February 16, 2024, the first day of the Year of the Dragon. Photo: VCG

Nurses take care of "dragon" babies at the First Hospital of Anhui University of Science and Technology in Huainan, East China's Anhui Province, on February 16, 2024, the first day of the Year of the Dragon. Photo: VCG

Many more boys than girls?

China's sex ratio at birth is another widely watched figure apart from the general fertility rate.

In China, the sex ratio at birth in 2022 was 111.1 (111.1 boys per 100 girls), slightly increased from the previous year's 108.3 ratio, according to data from the National Health Commission. On social media, some users shared their observations of "many more boys than girls in kindergarten," which resonated with many.

However, the Global Times also found many posts on Chinese social media platforms that say there are more girls than boys in kindergarten.

Demographer Zhou Haiwang refuted the saying that China's sex ratio at birth "is seriously misaligned." The personal experiences of some netizens are just individual cases, said Zhou, deputy director of the Institute of Urban and Demographic Studies under the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

The slight fluctuation in sex ratio at birth in one or two single years is normal, Zhou said. "On the whole, the ratio in China has gradually declined over in the last decade," he said.

Prior to 2022, China's sex ratios at birth saw a 10-year consecutive decrease, dropping from 117.7 in 2012 to 108.3 in 2021. The gender structure of the birth population has improved significantly, according to National Bureau of Statistics.

"The preference for boys over girls is now rarely seen in big cities, and the situation has improved a lot in urban areas as well," Zhou told the Global Times.

Through the years, China has been working hard to achieve gender equality, Zhou noted. Governments at all levels have introduced many laws and regulations to protect the interests of female employees, and pregnant and breast-feeding women enjoy more and more favorable policies, such as extended maternity leave, he said.