Monkeys are clever and cute — or so the conventional wisdom in China has it. And therefore people see the Year of the Monkey, which begins on February 8, as an auspicious time for making babies.
The Year of the Goat, however, which is now coming to an end, has the opposite reputation. "Nine out of 10 babies born in the Year of the Goat are unlucky," goes an old Chinese saying. (While some translations have it as "goat," others render it as "sheep" or "ram.")
This week, China's National Health and Family Planning Commission cited these folk beliefs as part of an explanation for a decline in births in 2015. According to the latest statistics, 16.5 million babies were born in China last year, some 320,000 less than in 2014. The commission's reasoning: People decided not to have babies because "Year of the Goat" babies are linked to bad luck.
Some observers don't know what's worse, the "monkey business" or the "scapegoating."
"Such a creative use of superstition," sniped an editorial in the official English-language China Daily newspaper, "neither helps [people] understand the real demographic challenges nor adds credibility to the estimate for population growth."
"A more thorough and serious review of the latest population changes is needed," the editorial continued, "to allow the country to respond appropriately to prevent a demographic crisis from happening."
The Beijing Times newspaper added that official statistics clearly show that the decline in births is due not to zodiac signs but to a decrease in the number of Chinese women of childbearing age.
This year, China officially scrapped its so-called one-child policy, allowing most families to have two children.
Many population experts say the change is too late to prevent a labor shortage and an aging crisis.
They see the change as a face-saving measure by bureaucrats who are unwilling to admit that the one-child policy was unnecessary in the first place and that all remaining population controls should be scrapped.
Adding to concerns are statistics that China's economy last year grew at its slowest annual pace in 25 years.
And China's working-age population registered a record-breaking decline of nearly 5 million people in 2015.
China's family planning bureaucracy has always argued that the country's population controls, which began in 1980, helped reduce the number of mouths to feed and thereby sped up the country's development.
They predicted that there would be more births last year, because in 2013, family planning policies were amended to allow couples to have a second child if either parent was a second child. But these estimates, it turned out, were off the mark.
The commission predicts that the number of newborns will climb to between 17.5 and 21 million annually for the next five years.
China's population is expected to peak in 2025 at around 1.4 billion, and then decline.