Chinese doctor bewails vanishing obstetrics wards as births plummet

Shanghai doctor Duan Tao says the number of beds in obstetrics clinics is falling 'every day.'
By Qian Lang for RFA Mandarin
2024.03.27
Chinese doctor bewails vanishing obstetrics wards as births plummet A child cries during a blue sky day outside the Forbidden City in Beijing Dec. 18, 2015.
Ng Han Guan/AP

A prominent Chinese obstetrician has taken to social media to lament the closure of obstetrics departments in Chinese hospitals, prompting social media comments that the ruling Chinese Communist Party needs to make life better for young people if it wants to reverse falling birth rates.

"Save obstetrics!" wrote Duan Tao, obstetrician at the Shanghai No. 1 Maternal and Infant Health Hospital, in the title of his post to the social media platform Weibo at the end of last month, following a meeting of obstetrics department heads in Shanghai's Pudong New Area.

"One man who has been a director of obstetrics for more than 20 years wept as he told the meeting that his department had recently been shut down," Duan wrote, pointing to a fall in births from 17.86 million in 2016 to just 9.02 million in 2023.

"The government asked hospitals to add more beds after childbirth was liberalized [in May 2021]," Duan wrote. "The number of births has fallen ... and the number of obstetric outpatient clinics and obstetric beds is falling every day."

Communist Party leader Xi Jinping last October called on women to focus on raising families, and the National People's Congress this month started looking at ways to boost flagging birth rates and kick-start the shrinking population, including flexible working policies, coverage for fertility treatment and extended maternity leave.

But young women in today's China are increasingly choosing not to marry or have kids, citing huge inequalities and patriarchal attitudes that still run through family life, not to mention the sheer economic cost of raising a family.

According to Duan's post, more than a dozen obstetrics departments closed in 2022, with further closures reported in Zhejiang, Guangzhou and Guangxi last year. So far this year, three more facilities have closed.

Trending on Weibo

The topic has been trending on Weibo in recent days, with some comments claiming to have recently visited obstetrics departments packed with pregnant women, and others complaining that young people have no time, money or energy to raise families amid the economic downturn and rampant youth unemployment.

"Let young people only work 8 hours a day so they have time to have sex," Weibo user @Reflection_arc_super_long_star_silhouette_9 suggested. "Otherwise, they're totally exhausted after working overtime, let alone having the time to conceive and raise a child."

Pregnant women rest inside a corridor displaying posters with information on breastfeeding at Tiantan Hospital’s maternity ward in Beijing, Aug. 7, 2013. (Andy Wong/AP)
Pregnant women rest inside a corridor displaying posters with information on breastfeeding at Tiantan Hospital’s maternity ward in Beijing, Aug. 7, 2013. (Andy Wong/AP)

"Does it matter whether we have children or not?" @Dr._Zeng_who_performs_hernia_surgery wanted to know. "Perhaps more advanced technology will make in vitro fertilization possible, just like in the science fiction movies."

@Mr._Sixth_Floor wrote: "[People] are thinking about the cost of their life choices, their quality of life, and their own fulfillment."

Weibo celebrity @Dr._Xu_Chao seemed to agree. "For many young people, the current cost of living, high housing prices, physical and mental exhaustion, etc. are all important factors that hinder the desire to have children," the user wrote.

"Current work pressures leave them no time to care about things other than survival, and they are feeling suffocated by unattainable housing prices ... and don't want that kind of life for their kids," they wrote, adding: "First, save young people!"

@Yadong added: "Let’s save young people first. Only after we do that can we have more children," while @Caibaoer commented that "high housing prices ... and being laid off at 35 are the best form of contraception."

Hospitals 'shouldn't be doing this'

A resident of Shandong province who gave only the surname Lu for fear of reprisals said hospitals should still offer services, as they receive government funding.

"Hospitals are nonprofits, and shouldn't be doing this," she said. "Low birth rates shouldn't mean that hospitals can just shut down their obstetrics departments."

She echoed comments on social media about the general lack of interest in raising children in today's China.

"This is about the situation that people find themselves in regarding how well they eat, how often they are sick and so on," Lu said. 

"That together with rising pressures like housing and transportation means they are giving up on having kids."

Lu’s comments were also echoed by an anonymous blogger on the Sohu.com platform, who wrote that people and children are getting sick more often than they used to before the pandemic, and “have no energy for life.”

“Everyone is much more tired since the pandemic, compared with before,” the blogger wrote. “We have no family and no life of our own, yet the higher ups don’t want us to rest.”

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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