Taiwanese leaders hope Year of the Rabbit will bring babies

ATHENS, Ohio, March 16 -- One is enough for Hsu Ling-Fang.

Because her husband works long hours, “very tiring” round-the-clock childcare for their year-old daughter has fallen solely onto Hsu, 29. When their child is old enough, Hsu will put her in daycare and re-enter the workforce.

As a music teacher from Taiwan’s northwest city of Hsinchu, Hsu knows the importance of children. However, she says the government stipend for having children — roughly $200 per child — is hardly enough to coax her into having a second.

“The government doesn’t give out enough,” she said in a phone interview. “Luckily my husband is an engineer, but most people worry about having money to support a child.”

New government efforts for the Chinese New Year may persuade her otherwise.

With small monetary incentives doing little to counteract Taiwan’s plummeting birthrate, the government has turned to superstitions surrounding last month’s Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rabbit. With the year’s titular animal at the heart of the campaign, officials have said they hope citizen’s “feel the energy of the rabbits” and reconsider parenthood. The Chinese year began in February and will run through early next year.

In January, Taipei unveiled rabbit-themed mini-lanterns and a 70-foot LED display named Baby the Rabbit for the year’s Lantern Festival, an event culminating two weeks of New Year celebration. The government is also pushing the notion that it would be lucky to conceive children during the country’s centennial this year, said Fan Se-Jen, a specialist for Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development.

The Public Reference Bureau stated on Jan. 27 that in Taiwan had the lowest fertility rate recorded in history last year. Averaging .91 births each, some Taiwanese women are foregoing having children. Population analysts have determined countries need a fertility rate of at least 2.1 to maintain population levels.

Taiwan’s fertility rate stayed at 1.1 from 2005 to 2009. The main reason for last year’s drop, according to the Public Reference Bureau, was the Year of the Tiger. The fertility rate fell 16.7 percent during the last Tiger Year, 1998, but rebounded by the end of the more auspicious Year of the Dragon two years later.

In Taiwan, “tiger babies” are thought to be to be headstrong and hard to reason with. Those aren't characteristics valued in a society that prizes smarts, compliance and competitiveness, Fan said.

“We’re seeing several people getting married this year, and many of those people are going to try to have ‘dragon babies’ next year because that is a luckier year,” she said.

Despite the annual effect of superstitions on births, Taiwan’s fertility rate has been on decline for decades. Dissuaded by a higher cost of living, lack of government incentives and lack of time, Taiwanese couples are delaying parenthood or opting out entirely.

This decline has sparked fear among those who rely on a steady stream of children, particularly in education.

“Our president keeps talking about ‘the perfect storm,’” said Paul SanGregory, a music professor at the National Pingtung University of Education, in a phone interview. “He’s been talking about the year when the first major decrease will hit us. This decrease has already been passing through grade schools.”

SanGregory said that in a country that emphasizes on standardized tests, the drop in students might mean less competition. If a student is more confident about a spot in college, he or she may try less in high school.

Fan said the government already has programs to discourage high school graduates from entering education, trying to hedge a future glut of teachers.

“Many young doctors aren’t going into obstetrics, but they can easily specialize in another medical field,” she said. “Teachers can’t.”

Taiwan’s low birthrate comes when critics are lambasting mainland China for its one-child policy.

Those against the restriction for couples to have one child say the policy, combined with the need for sons in Chinese culture, leads to female infanticide and unsafe abortions.

Despite these differences across the Taiwan Strait, Fan said the major reason behind Taiwan’s low birthrate stems from economic development, citing a recent visit to the Chinese province of Sichuan.
Sichuan used to be an agricultural area with families clamoring for multiple children. However, Fan said, newly educated urbanites comply with the one-child policy more easily now. In some cases, they too are foregoing children for the same reasons Taiwanese couples are. Would-be parents are reserving time for education, dealing with money constraints and working at specialized jobs requiring long hours.

Wang Yen-Chieh, a 25-year old newlywed, said that she is too young to be a mother in Taiwan, where women often wait until their mid-30s to have children. She said it’s not uncommon for the wife to be the household’s main breadwinner. Women don't want to spend their 20s, a time for starting careers, at home raising children.

“If [Taiwanese people] wanted kids, I don’t think it would be a problem because there’s so much help with family here, like relatives to look after your children when you’re working,” said Joe Benarth, 36, an American teaching English in Kaoshiung, Taiwan’s second-largest and southernmost city.

Wang said she and her husband of a year and a half are planning on having only one child. If they have two, she said she hopes to have twins because having children over a few years would take more time out of her professional life.

Hsu said she can take up to two years of unpaid maternity leave and still be guaranteed a job. Despite the job security, Hsu said two years supporting a child with half the family income is a large investment.

Wang, of the central Taiwanese city of Taichung, said the economic conditions for having children are worst in Taipei.

“There are huge differences between northern and southern Taiwan. You almost need to save all of your salaries without eating or drinking in order to afford a house in Taipei,” she said.

Like many young women, Wang said she wants the status of being successful, competent and youthful.

“I want to be a hot mom,” she said.