As pets replace babies in China, Beijing scrambles to fix problem

Chinese authorities are in a fix as they are finding it hard to overcome challenges of declining baby population in the country because of the growing number of millennium youth, particularly women prefer owning pets rather than marrying and having kids due to unaffordable housing prices and high cost of child care.

According to a 2021 White Paper released by China Pet Industry Association, the number of pet owners will reach 62.94 million in 2020—up from 62.8 million in 2019. Of the total Chinese pet owners, 88% are women who are well-educated and enjoying high income per annum, said the consulting firm PwC.
In terms of pets’ numbers, China’s urban areas saw the presence of 100.8 million dogs and cats in 2020—1.7% up from 2019 and 10.2% higher than 2018, the White Paper said, while estimating the pet market to be worth 445.6 billion yuan (US$70 billion) in 2023.

However, more eye-catching is London-based international professional services network, Deloitte’s report. According to it, the number of pet dogs and cats in China is fast approaching 200 million, after their household penetration jumped from 12% in 2012 to 25% in 2021.

Interestingly, cats are winning more hearts than dogs. As per Deloitte report, while the total number of cats stood at 96 million, there were 92 million canines as pets in China in 2021. “Younger generations tend to favour cats more, as dogs require greater responsibilities and more companionship,” Crystal Wang, a financial advisory leader at Deloitte’s China Consumer Products and Retail Sector was quoted by South China Morning Post as saying.

Analysts say this trend of owning pets will receive a feverish support in China as more and more well educated and high salaried urban residents prefer to stay alone, abhorring marriages and having kids as the cost of living is high and working hours are very long in the country. This inclination is particularly very high among youth of ages between 20 and 30.

A survey of 2,905 unwed urban people aged 18-26 by the Communist Youth League in October 2021 found that 43.9% of women had no intention of getting married or were unsure if it would happen, while 24.6% of male wished to remain single. However, among all the surveyed people, there was one strong commonality; they treated their pets as sons or daughters.

This has triggered a major concern among Chinese authorities as the country has entered an era of negative population growth. To fix the problem of declining population growth, they want youth to reverse the trend of remaining unwed and spending life with pets. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, the country’s population fell by 850,000 to 1.41 billion people in 2022. In fact, since the 1990s, China’s fertility rate has declined to below the replacement level of 2.1. It was 1.30 in 2020 and 1.15 in 2021. Several studies have found that rising costs of raising children and lack of welfare provisions have been key factors behind China’s low fertility rate.

Fearing its adverse impact on the number of working-age people, which will shrink beyond estimation, and overall economic health of the country will suffer heavily, the Chinese government in recent years has begun to offer incentives such as tax breaks, subsidies for childcare and longer parental leave while discouraging singlehood among youth. Couples are now allowed to have three children. But these measures are falling flat like house of cards. The country’s keen desire for a baby boom is not getting translated into a reality. Instead, on account of increasingly changing people’s lifestyles, it is witnessing a pet boom in urban areas.

According to the Guangzhou based data mining and analysis organisation, iiMedia Research, in spite of economic headwinds, China’s pet industry is all set to grow by 68% to 811 billion yuan (US$116 billion) by 2025, compared with 494 billion yuan this year. With fewer youth see marriage as an important family and social responsibility, it is believed that such projections on the pet industry’s growth are not without a basis. Yet this attitude is not just limited to mainland China, in Hong Kong too, youth choose to pick up life in association with pets rather than marrying and having babies.

Cats are preferred over babies by residents in the city where, as per the United Nations Population Fund, the total fertility rate (TFR)—the number of children women are expected to have in her life time—is 0.8, the lowest in the world. The total number of babies born in the city was 32,500 last year, a drastic decline in the number of births recorded five years ago. In 2017, 56,500 babies were born in Hong Kong. Five primary schools in the city, as per media reports, are on the verge of closure as they lack fresh enrolments in the new academic year.