For China's birthrate, this may be a bad sign

Some in China fear a drop in the birthrate during the upcoming year of the sheep

Chen Lei runs a Shanghai business that helps pregnant Chinese women fly to Southern California and give birth in hospitals in Whittier, Fountain Valley, Pomona and other nearby cities. But come Feb. 19 — when the Chinese New Year begins, closing out the year of the horse and ushering in the year of the sheep — he's anticipating a sharp drop in clientele for his company, Xiduo Baby.

"We expect the number of women who will give birth via our center during the year of the sheep to fall by around 30%. There's nothing we can do about it," Chen lamented. "It's because of this expression: 'Only 1 out of 10 sheep people can find happiness in their lives.'"

For many of Chen's well-educated, white-collar customers, there's little point to going to great lengths to secure American citizenship for their newborns in 2015 if the children are going to be born under a bad sign. Instead, many couples may be planning to wait several months into the new year to get pregnant, thereby ensuring their offspring will be born under the subsequent zodiac symbol. "I think there will be a peak during the year of the monkey," Chen predicted, referring to the year that will start Feb. 8, 2016.

Though some studies say statistics don't bear out the premise of zodiac-challenged birth years, Chen is hardly the only one discussing shifts in childbearing plans. State-run news outlets in recent weeks have been reporting that some hospitals have seen increases in caesarean deliveries, as couples try to ensure their offspring are born in the current year of the horse, which is regarded as more fortunate.

Hospitals in Guizhou,Shandong and Liaoning provinces have all reported such an upswing in births that they've been caught without enough birth certificates to issue. Meanwhile, abortion consultations have also seen a jump, according to official media. All of this, of course, was preceded by dispatches about nine months ago about couples furiously trying to get pregnant "in time" to ensure a horse baby.

The bad buzz over being born in the year of the sheep centers on the notion that such people are — like the animals — "meek and destined for slaughter rather than success," the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper explained, while adding that the sign also is associated with characteristics including loyalty, generosity and passivity. Among those who believe in Chinese astrology, the sheep — one of a dozen animal signs that rotate through a 12-year cycle — is seen as particularly disadvantageous to women.

The negative chatter over the year of the sheep prompted state-run China Central Television in November to issue a message on its Weibo microblog site that sayings such as "women born in the year of the sheep don't live long" are false.

Unflattering sayings about people born in the year of the sheep, the broadcaster said, date to the early 1900s, when people aiming to overthrow the Empress Dowager Cixi — a sheep baby — cooked up such phrases to smear her. Other sources, though, say Cixi herself cooked up the notion, to discourage potential rivals.

"Know the truth and don't spread the fallacies from year to year," CCTV urged, pointing out that such eminent personages as Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch were all born under the sheep sign, which is also sometimes known as ram or goat.

Ma Yan, now of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, published a study in 2010 looking at birthrate data between 1949 and 2008 and found no discernible zodiac-based preferences. Duan Chengrong, a demographer at Renmin University in Beijingwho has also published research on the topic and come to similar conclusions, said the government has little to worry about despite the plethora of media coverage.

"It's unclear how prevalent beliefs in such sayings are," Duan said, but "our research showed there was no significant influence on national birthrate statistics."

Still, Duan noted, if zodiac-based preferences are particularly strong in a localized area, it could skew birthrates, affecting schools and other public facilities that might see a bulge in enrollment one year and a sharp decline the next. "If the rates are not stable, this can cause problems for planning," he said.

Another reason government authorities might be taking a heightened interest in the birthrate during the upcoming year of the sheep is that China's working-age population shrank in 2012 and 2013, the first such drop-off in decades.

With about 1.35 billion people, China is the world's most populous country, but the birthrate has been slowing substantially, falling from more than 20 per 1,000 people in 1990 to about 12 today. Concerned about the economic effects of a smaller labor pool and a rapidly aging population, the government in late 2013 relaxed its long-standing "one-child" policy, allowing more families to have a second son or daughter.

But so far, a smaller-than-expected number of couples have applied for permission to expand their brood. "China's second-child push falls short," the People's Daily newspaper said in a recent headline, noting that authorities had anticipated 2 million applications last year but received fewer than half that number. Still, the paper quoted a government spokesman as calling the numbers "in line with expectations," in part because different provinces relaxed their policies at different times in 2014.

Whether the recent rise in births in Guizhou and other provinces might be attributable not to a rush to have horse babies but to the easing of the one-child policy remained unclear.

A young woman surnamed Wang who was walking her 2-year-old daughter in Beijing's Ritan Park on Tuesday said a lot of people in her hometown in Shaanxi province still clung to the idea that sheep babies were doomed to bad fates, though she put no stock in such beliefs. "Some people really care about this, older people," she said. "It's a tradition."

But 71-year-old Li Chunhua disagreed. "I was born in the year of the sheep, and a lot of my classmates were too. We all had happy lives," she said, sitting on a park bench with her husband. "Us old people don't believe in this; it's the young people nowadays, who maybe are not properly educated, who do."

Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang of The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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