On Tuesday, China’s National Bureau of Statistics announced that the country’s population had declined for the first time in 60 years. This marks a pivotal moment for what now may no longer be the world’s most populous country, with profound implications for the domestic and global economy. While officials desperately try to adapt to the new reality, Chinese netizens, and women in particular, have derided the failures of a government demographic policy that never respected their rights in the first place.
Luna Sun from the South China Morning Post reported on the government’s announcement:
Deaths outnumbered births in China as its overall population plummeted by 850,000 people – to 1.4118 billion in 2022, down from 1.4126 billion a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on Tuesday.
Mothers in China had 9.56 million babies last year, a 9.98 per cent drop from 10.62 million in 2021.
The national birth rate fell to a record low of 6.77 births for every 1,000 people in 2022, down from 7.52 in 2021, marking the lowest rate since records began in 1949.
The national death rate was 7.37 per thousand last year, putting the national growth rate at negative 0.6 per thousand people. [Source]
Demographers and economists sounded the alarm. “China is facing a demographic crisis that far exceeds the imagination of Chinese authorities and the international community,” said Fuxian Yi, a demographer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Wang Feng, an expert on Chinese demographic change at the University of California, Irvine, noted: “This is a truly historic turning point, an onset of a long-term and irreversible population decline.” As The Wall Street Journal reported, economists fear that “[a] rapidly aging population, slowing growth in productivity, high debt levels and rising social inequality will weigh on the country’s economic ascent for decades to come.” Yue Su, principal economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, warned: “This trend is going to continue and perhaps worsen after Covid.” The statistics released on Tuesday were reportedly gathered in November of 2022, before the zero-COVID policy was lifted.
The most important part of this isn’t that it’s happening, which has been the presumption for decades, but that it’s happening a decade earlier than fairly recent projections suggested. https://t.co/qk4O3wpKTD
— Mike Bird (@Birdyword) January 17, 2023
On Chinese social media, many netizens scoffed at the government’s announcement. CDT Chinese collected a variety of comments ranging from reminders of the socioeconomic pressures underlying falling birthrates; suggestions that the government invest more in education, childcare, and housing; and sarcastic congratulatory messages to the government for having achieved its (now-outdated) population-reduction targets:
咿咿呀呀学学说话：Family planning offices should hang banners celebrating the attainment of their decades-long goal.
老吴喵和大郎喵：Change of headline: “For the First Time in Nearly 60 Years, National Family Planning Policy Scores a Major Win!”
MRTS ：Eight million newborns are too few, but 10 million new graduates are too many; age 30 is too old to get hired, but 60 is too young to retire.
·岁在庚子：How’s this possible? They told us that 80% of university students want to have two kids! [Chinese]
on the “first population decline in 60 yrs” news, thinking of the enormous pain, physical and emotional, inflicted upon millions of women and families throughout three decades of one child policy https://t.co/y93XXnWqj7
— Chenchen Zhang 🤦🏻♀️ (@chenchenzh) January 17, 2023
lol now people are reposting this newspaper headline from 2003: “Shandong sets goal of zero population growth by 2022”
(Leslie Cheung 😢) pic.twitter.com/NDbP2BsNHG
— Irene Zhang (@irenearz) January 17, 2023
Over the weekend, Beijing Business Today reported on a survey purporting to show that “80% of university students would like to have two children.” The survey results were widely mocked and questioned online, as CDT Chinese documented, with many netizens pointing out that news reports failed to mention the specific wording of the survey question [italics ours]: “Under ideal circumstances, how many children would you like to have?”:
沙河zera：#2022NationalPopulationGrowthShowsPossibleDecline (#2022年全国人口或出现负增#) and #80PercentOfUniversityStudentsWantTwoChildren (#八成大学生想生二胎#) Viewing these [two hashtags] in combination, there doesn’t seem to be a big problem.
WednesdayWhen：This reminded me of how, right after COVID controls were lifted, our local government reported only two confirmed cases, but there were three cases of COVID in our family alone.
2023要是财务自由的princess：Laughing my head off. Where’d they do this survey, at some sort of university for the elderly?
咪呀咪呀：80% of university students also want to earn one million per year after graduation.
小王要吃红烧肉：That’s about the same as the [post-graduation] employment rate for university students.
海盐啵子：Were these the only responses to choose from? (a) Two kids. (b) Three kids. (c) More than three kids. [Chinese]
Tuesday’s statistics revealed that, partly due to sex-selective abortion and previous policies restricting childbearing, Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women by 722.06 million to 689.69 million. To correct this gender imbalance and stabilize future demographics, the CCP has taken various measures to encourage women to bear children. In 2015, it abolished the one-child policy, and in 2021, it went a step further and abolished the two-child policy. In recent years, some local governments have even attempted to play matchmaker for singles, and last week Shenzhen officials announced they would provide tiered cash inducements for families having their first, second, or third child. Commenting on these financial “sweeteners” last year, one netizen wrote: “As soon as they want to access your uterus, they start the sweet talk.”
Not everyone is swayed by the CCP’s increasingly pro-natalist stance. After the government’s announcement on Tuesday, the hashtag #IsItReallyImportantToHaveOffspring? (#有没有后代真的很重要吗#) garnered hundreds of millions of hits. One netizen wrote: “The fundamental reason why women do not want to have children lies not in themselves, but in the failure of society and men to take up the responsibility of raising children. For women who give birth this leads to a serious decline in their quality of life and spiritual life.” Indeed, as assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore Zheng Mu stated: “When we talk about child care and the education of children, most of the time women are expected to do the work.” Christian Shepherd from The Washington Post described how childcare and other burdens lessen the appeal of government incentives for marriage and childbirth:
A society built around the single-child household also provides only limited child-care support. In multiple surveys, respondents regularly cite the rising costs of a large family as the primary reason not to have more children.
This is especially true for Chinese people who live in large cities, many of whom have radically different beliefs about marriage and giving birth compared with their parents’ generation. Other oft-cited concerns include lower wages for women after giving birth and a lack of easily available child care. [Source]
Women are key to the government’s demographic rescue mission. But while the CCP has made gestures towards women’s rights, its actual policies have failed to bring many on board with its pronatalist agenda. Unmarried women still enjoy fewer rights and benefits under government family-promoting policies. Those who are married are endangered by restrictions on divorce, particularly given the surge in domestic violence during pandemic lockdowns. This is part of a broader government tendency to ignore violence against women and disadvantage #MeToo victims, trends which show no sign of abating under the current all-male Politburo. Leta Hong Fincher wrote that “the [protests] of recent weeks have shown that a critical mass of young women across China are fed up with Xi’s patriarchal authoritarianism. Many have already chosen to renounce marriage and children in a private act of resistance.” Liyan Qi at The Wall Street Journal described how, for some, the disinclination to marry and have children is directly connected to the poor treatment of women in society:
An art student in the western city of Xi’an said she is focusing on finishing her degree and promoting social justice, especially women’s-rights issues outside classrooms.
“No marriage, no kids for me as long as our society is still so unfair to women,” said the Xi’an native.
The student, who participated in nationwide protests in late November against Beijing’s zero-Covid policy, said she and her friends have found their voices after a series of high-profile incidents of violence against women in different parts of China, including footage of a trafficked woman who had been chained in a shed, which sparked nationwide outrage early last year.
China has recently revised a women’s-rights law, which introduced safeguards against sexual harassment and workplace discrimination against women, but also introduced a list of moral standards for women to uphold, including “respecting social morals, professional ethics and family values.” [Source]
China’s population size is as much a demographic-political issue, as it is a personal one. How shall we begin to see, from a Sheer Number in a Simple Announcement, Chinese people’s livelihood, dignity and resistance, in the throes of all-encompassing authoritarian governance? 1/8
— Yun Zhou (@yunjulietzhou) January 17, 2023
To some women, embracing paid employment over childbearing and childrearing becomes a “moral” choice—central to the sense of self and longing for gender equality. 4/8 https://t.co/3SlUVltaQN
— Yun Zhou (@yunjulietzhou) January 17, 2023
Yet, gendered familial expectations and sexual double standards—and the patriarchy at large—have remained strong. 6/8 https://t.co/Pws54L00JQ
— Yun Zhou (@yunjulietzhou) January 17, 2023
State repression, too, can play a role in dissuading procreation. Last May, when a Shanghai police officer warned a resident under pandemic lockdown that non-compliance with the city’s draconian zero-COVID policy would negatively impact that resident’s future offspring, the man defiantly replied: “We’re the last generation, thanks!” His reply went viral across the Chinese internet, becoming a potent meme to express despair about the country’s political trajectory. As one commenter with the username “zxzlaw” wrote: “The speaker declared a decision of a biological nature: we will not reproduce. […] That phrase is, perhaps, the strongest indictment a young person can make of the era to which they belong.”
Last week, prior to the release of the demographic report, the Chinese government claimed that 60,000 people have died from the coronavirus since the zero-COVID policy was lifted—a figure widely disputed by observers. (Some also pointed out that it is, coincidentally or not, just below Japan’s current total number of COVID deaths.) The CCP has long manipulated data to obscure negative news about its governance. On the demographic front, “What is significant here is for China’s official statistics to self-report a population decline—this is a shift of kind, not just degree,” wrote Yun Zhou, an assistant professor at University of Michigan’s Center for Chinese Studies. Another official statistic announced on Tuesday is that China’s economy grew by only three percent last year, falling short of the government’s own 5.5-percent target.
Translation by Cindy Carter.