TAIPEI, Taiwan — “My relationship with my parents is broken and my wife is suffering from depression. F**k the Year of the Dragon.”
That’s how Justin Lin, a 38-year-old power utility employee, described the fallout from his and his wife’s failed efforts to produce a baby during the Chinese zodiac’s most auspicious year.
“We didn’t want another kid, but my father made such a big deal about having a dragon grandson that my wife finally relented. When she didn’t get pregnant, they acted like it was her fault. We are both so stressed that she stopped eating and I started smoking again,” said Lin, taking a drag of his 長壽, or Longlife, cigarette.
The Longlife’s an irony that’s not lost on Lin, who lives in the same west Taipei apartment building as his parents. “If they don’t kill me, these will,” he said, referring first to his parents and then pointing to the cigarette, popular among the island republic’s truck drivers and construction workers.
Lin may have had problems this year, but many others have not. And that’s good news for Taiwan, which has been struggling to prop up one of the world’s lowest birth rates for years. In Chinese culture, babies born in the Year of the Dragon, which began on Jan. 23, are supposedly gifted with healthy doses of strength and luck. They are also believed to excel academically.
It’s those traits that are producing a baby boom in Taiwan.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 107,508 newborns were welcomed in the first six months of 2012, a 17.29 percent increase from the same period last year. The Council for Economic Planning and Development estimates that 2012 births will shave a year off forecasts for Taiwan’s official inclusion in the aged society club from 2017 to 2018.
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It’s a much needed shot in the arm for a country that saw its fertility rate fall to 0.9 babies born per woman of child birthing age in 2011. That number, the world’s lowest, prompted President Ma Ying-jeou to call the island’s dwindling birth rate and rapidly aging society “national security” issues.
"I am very concerned that if we don't have sufficient manpower, we would have to get it from abroad and the matter would become more complicated,” he said, according to a local media report.
About 14 percent of the island’s roughly 23 million residents, or 3.2 million people, are over 65. By 2030 that number will double. According to Council for Economic Planning and Development, Taiwan’s population will fall to less than 19 million by 2060. Experts say the economic consequences would be devastating.
It wasn’t always like this. Back in the 1950s, when Taiwan was an agricultural-based society, women gave birth to an average of seven children. But then rapid industrialization arrived, an economic miracle that saw it dubbed an "Asian Tiger," and a recent shift from a manufacturing to a services-based economy.
Today’s young couples are facing a host of problems, including low wages and skyrocketing property prices, which have prompted many to choose quality of life and careers over child-rearing.
The Ma administration has introduced a raft of incentives to encourage couples to have more children, including a monthly child-care stipend, education and healthcare subsidies. However, critics say they are too little, too late.
“The subsidies aren’t enough to put a dent in child-raising costs. But the real problem is low wages, and the government doesn’t have any will to deal with that. They also talk about opening up the borders to stabilize the birth rate through immigration, but who would want to live here when wages are so low,” said Chen Ming-li, an advertising executive who moved his young family to Hong Kong in 2009.
Across the 100-mile Taiwan Strait, mainland China is also experiencing a dragon baby boom, despite its oft-maligned one-child policy.
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State-run news agency Xinhua reported that China was anticipating a 5 percent rise in births this year. Bloomberg reported that maternity and baby-related products are surging and Singapore-based cable TV channel Channel NewsAsia said in July that Beijing was running out of maternity beds to fill increased demand.
But China is in sturdier shape than Taiwan. While forced abortions and sterilizations dominate the headlines, the United Nations Population Division lists China’s fertility rate at 1.6. Fears of an aging society are blunted compared to its cousin across the sea.
China’s transition from a labor intensive manufacturing and export-based economy to a services and knowledge-based one, particularly as consumer spending increases, will soften the economic fallout.
Taiwan, which is expecting about 230,000 births by the end of the year, is also bracing for a drop off next year and beyond as the lunar calendar moves into less auspicious zodiac signs.
Researchers have found that parents often invested more time and care in dragon babies. A 2011 study by George Mason University found that Asian-American dragon babies are on average half a year more educated than Asian-Americans born in non-dragon years.
“Belief in the superiority of dragon-year children is self-fulfilling,” said John Nye, professor of economics, in a story posted on the university’s website. “The demographic characteristics associated with parents who are more willing and able to adjust their birthing strategies are correlated with greater investment in their children.”
But sometimes that investment doesn’t pay out the desired dividends.
“Being a dragon baby is the worst. All of the kids in your class are more competitive and work harder. It’s more difficult to get into good universities because the test scores for that year are higher and there are only a limited number of spots available,” said office worker Kelly Liu, herself a 1976 dragon baby.
“I always wondered if I would have had cooler and more relaxed classmates if I was born a year later. When you think about it, parents would be smarter to have kids born in other years where there is less competition.”