Hospitals across China are busy installing new beds in anticipation of a spike in expectant mothers ready to deliver babies. Supermarkets in Taiwan are increasing their shelf space in order to stock diapers for the newborns. Stay-at-home postnatal care nurses in Hong Kong are getting at least ten calls a day from couples planning to have a child this year.
Suddenly many couples of Chinese ancestry across Asia and beyond are very excited to have a baby this year. The secret behind their newfound enthusiasm for babies? The year of the dragon that began on January 23, 2012.
The 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle symbolizes each year with an animal. The only mythical character in the 12-year cycle is the dragon, while the other 11 are earthly creatures including the ox, the rabbit and the horse. The mythical dragon is considered auspicious, and the Chinese believe that babies born in the year of the dragon will incur a prodigious amount of luck and good fortune – not just to themselves but also to their entire family. In ancient China, the dragon was associated with the emperor, and now babies born during the year of dragon are believed to end up wealthy and successful. It seems many Chinese couples want an emperor in the family.
Emperor or not, the babies will bring indescribable joy to many in the Chinese-speaking world. Elderly Chinese, in particular, lamenting the reticent ways of the younger generation that has long denied them grandchildren, are the happiest. In recent times, with an increasing number of women joining the workplace and the cost of raising children skyrocketing, fertility among Chinese across Asia has fallen to alarming levels. This has been particularly true in the Chinese-dominated societies of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The fertility rate, or the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime, was more than 5 in East Asia during the 1960’s. That figure dropped to nearly 1.5 in 2010. The declining fertility rate has posed a significant threat to many of these Asian economies, with Taiwan and Singapore fearing that without sustained demographics, economic growth will be hard to maintain.
For government authorities, the year of the dragon is a godsend. During the last dragon year in 2000, child births accelerated across the Chinese speaking world. Hong Kong and China posted a 5% rise in newborns during 2000. In Taiwan, fertility jumped to 1.7 in 2000 from 1.5 in 1999. Taiwan’s interior Minister, Chiang Yi-hua expects such a repeat this year as well, estimating fertility in 2012 to jump to 1.2 babies from a paltry 0.9 in 2010. The dragon fever has even infected China’s neighbors. Nearly 70% of the couples interviewed by CBS News in South Korea and Vietnam said they wanted a baby born in the year of the dragon.
In China, though, having a dragon baby is still difficult. The ‘one-child’ policy allows most urban couples in China to have just one child. Chinese couples who want a second child are reportedly travelling outside China to have their dragon child. Their favored destination, however, is Hong Kong, where hospitals and beds are already in short supply, unable to meet even the local dragon baby boom. The arrival of mainland Chinese couples to Hong Kong has given rise to some vocal protests from the residents of Hong Kong.
It seems everything related to childcare is valuable during the year of the dragon. And nannies and nurses are the most precious these days. BBCare, a Hong Kong-based placement agency engaged in finding nurses, told the BBC that hourly wages for nurses have shot up 15% already. Hong Kong itself expects its newborn population to grow by nearly 10% this year.
Still, the year of the dragon, at best, is likely to prop the declining demographic trend only temporarily. The year of the snake will follow in 2013, meaning a return to the declining demographic trend and lower fertility rates in East Asia.
In the meantime, though, nannies and nurses will be raking in a fortune with the little emperors on their laps.
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