By Farah Master, Albee Zhang and Casey Hall
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Seeing Chinese authorities exercise extraordinary powers during a stringent COVID-19 lockdown in Shanghai earlier this year altered Claire Jiang's life plans: she no longer wants to have babies in China.
During the April-May lockdown, the hashtag "we are the last generation" briefly went viral on Chinese social media before being censored.
The phrase echoed the response of a man who was visited by authorities in hazmat suits threatening to punish his family for three generations for non-compliance with COVID rules.
"That really resonated," said Jiang, who internalised the man's remark as her own answer to the motherhood question.
"I definitely don't want my children to have to carry the uncertainty of living in a country where the government can just come to your door and do whatever they want," said the 30-year-old, who works in the media industry.
Studies have shown that pandemics and economic uncertainty historically weigh on birth rates around the world.
But, particular to China, its uncompromising "zero-COVID" policy of promptly stamping out any outbreaks with strict controls on people's lives may have caused profound damage on their desire to have children, demographers say.
Accounts of people losing income or not having access to healthcare or food, or of authorities forcefully entering homes to take people to quarantine centres, including elderly and children, abounded during lockdowns in Shanghai and elsewhere.
Demographers say people's feelings of losing control over their lives from events like those can have major consequences on parenthood goals.
"China is obviously big government and small family," said prominent Chinese demographer Yi Fuxian. "China’s zero-COVID policy has led to a zero economy, zero marriages, zero fertility."
China's National Health Commission and its Family Planning Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Chinese authorities have repeatedly said zero-COVID is necessary to save lives, pointing to the millions of deaths around the world compared to only 5,226 officially reported in China since the start of the pandemic.
A July United Nations report predicts China's population of 1.4 billion may start to decline as early as next year, when India will overtake it as the world’s most populous country.
U.N. experts now see China's population shrinking by 109 million by 2050, more than triple the decline of their previous forecast in 2019.
A separate U.N. China report said the pandemic had a long-term impact on first births, with women citing financial insecurity, unsubstantiated worries about COVID vaccines affecting foetuses, along with difficulties in carrying a pregnancy and taking care of an infant under heavy restrictions.
"Couples that may have been thinking about having a child in the next year, definitely postponed those. Couples that really weren't sure, have postponed indefinitely," said Justine Coulson, the U.N. Population Fund Representative to China.
New births are set to fall to record lows this year, demographers say, dropping below 10 million from last year's 10.6 million babies - which were already 11.5% lower than in 2020.
Official 2022 population data is not expected until early next year, but some places in China have published worrying statistics in recent weeks.
Screening for birth defects - a reliable proxy for birthrates - in China's third most populous province Henan fell 9.5% year-on-year in the first six months.
Cities elsewhere reported double-digit drops in new birth certificates. Jiaozhou, a city of 1 million in Shandong province, saw a 26% drop in the first six months. Hukou, in Jiangxi province, saw a 42% dive.
Corporate earnings statements also provide some hints: formula maker Ausnutria Dairy, diaper producer Aiyingshi and Goodbaby, which makes cribs and strollers, are among firms citing China's falling births as factors leading to losses in the first half of the year.
None of those figures reflect the impact lockdowns such as those in Shanghai and elsewhere had earlier this year.
But demographers say they do offer a glimpse into how COVID-19 restrictions in 2020 and 2021 affected births and expect 2022 to be worse.
Demographer Yi collated data on infants tuberculosis vaccines, marriage registrations and searches for maternity and baby products on Baidu, China’s main search engine. He estimates COVID will result in 1 million fewer births in 2021 and 2022 combined, and 2023 could be even worse.
China, which imposed a one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, has officially acknowledged it is on the brink of a demographic downturn.
Its fertility rate of 1.16 in 2021 was below the 2.1 OECD standard for a stable population and among the lowest in the world.
Over the past year or so, authorities have introduced measures such as tax deductions, longer maternity leave, enhanced medical insurance, housing subsidies, extra money for a third child and a crackdown on expensive private tutoring.
Still, the desire for Chinese women to have children is the lowest in the world, a survey published in February by think-tank YuWa Population Research showed.
Demographers say measures taken so far are not enough. They cite high education costs, low wages and notoriously long working hours as issues that still need to be addressed, along with COVID policies and economic growth concerns.
A key root cause of low birth rates, according to Peter McDonald, professor of demography at University of Melbourne, is gender inequality, where China is ranked 102nd out of 146 countries by the World Economic Forum.
Jiahui Wu, a 25-year-old financial analyst, said society's standards for a good mother were strict.
"It seems much easier to be a good father," she said. "I prefer to have a good career."
(Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong, Casey Hall in Shanghai and Albee Zhang in Beijing; Additional reporting by Kiki Lo and Xiaoyu Yin; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Lincoln Feast)