Last week, China’s National Health Commission admitted that the country is expecting negative population growth over the next few years. Declining birth rates across several provinces this year suggest that China’s population has likely already peaked, and the UN recently projected that India will overtake China as the most populous country as early as next year. China’s accelerating demographic crisis of plummeting birth rates has forced the CCP to grapple with the side effects of its strict reproductive policies. Howard French examined the “powerful but regularly underappreciated” weight of China’s population dynamics at Foreign Policy on Friday, noting that while the country’s apparent demographic course may have some positive effects for the country, it will likely deny it the overwhelming economic and geopolitical dominance that have been widely assumed to lie in store for it.
During the period of China’s sharpest ascent, the country benefited immensely from what experts call a “demographic dividend,” meaning a population structure strongly skewed toward young people of prime working age as opposed to older adults. Now, with astonishing speed, the balance of China’s population ratios is shifting in the opposite direction, and the dramatic effects of this are increasingly coupled with a secular decline in the country’s overall population. A newly released revision of the United Nations Population Division’s demographic projections estimates that by the end of this century, China will no longer be the most populous country in the world. Perhaps even more surprising, according to the U.N.’s newest projections, China will be almost exactly half the size of India, which is expected to have 1.53 billion people, by 2100. To those who object that 2100 is too far off to be of practical relevance, by 2050, India, with 1.67 billion people, will already have around 300 million more people than China.
For those skeptical of this kind of modeling, it is worth pointing out that many experts consider the U.N.’s median scenario, which this data has been drawn from, is (if anything) overly cautious and understates matters. This seems to be borne out by the U.N.’s own periodic revisions. The newly issued projection, for example, says China’s population has begun to decline this year, nine years earlier than it had predicted in 2019, and that India’s population will surpass that of China in 2023, seven years earlier than predicted in that three-year-old revision. Yi Fuxian, a longtime analyst of China’s population dynamics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that even this does not go far enough and cites what he says are leaked Chinese documents that show the country’s present population to be 1.28 billion people rather than the 1.41 billion people that is officially claimed. [Source]
While part of China’s rescue plan has entailed gestures towards greater rights for women, the government has stopped short of pursuing full practical gender equality. Instead, its focus on fertility has prioritized traditional family structures, leaving many single women unable to freely exert their reproductive rights (an issue women face in many other countries, as well, including the U.S.). The government has continued to insist that personal family planning must be dictated from above.
As a case in point, last Friday a Beijing court ruled against Teresa Xu, an unmarried woman seeking the right to freeze her eggs. The decision ended a three-year court battle that drew national media attention. Hospitals in China typically require proof of a marriage license in order to freeze eggs, so when Xu first sought the procedure in 2018 at the age of 30, she was denied. Nonetheless, Xu intends to appeal the court decision. “[I]t’s a temporary setback,” she said, adding “There will definitely be a day (when) we will take back sovereignty over our own bodies.” Martin Quin Pollard and Roxanne Liu from Reuters reported on the reasoning behind the court’s decision:
The Chaoyang District People’s Court in Beijing ruled last week there was no clear law on the specific application of assisted reproductive technologies in China, while saying they must be provided for medical purposes, according to a copy of the decision verified by Reuters on Sunday.
[… Xu’s] challenge cited two Chinese provinces that have eased certain barriers for single women to access some assisted birth technology and a statement by the national authorities that China’s laws do not deny single women’s right of birth. But the court found these did not establish that the Chinese health authority allows egg freezing for non-medical reasons.
[…] The hospital argued that egg freezing has various health risks and that delayed pregnancy or single motherhood may lead to other social problems, the court decision said. The hospital said it would reject any request to freeze eggs simply to delay parenthood. [Source]
This month, Alexandra Stevenson from The New York Times described how single women in China are left out of government perks for childbearing:
With China’s birthrate at a historical low, officials have been doling out tax and housing credits, educational benefits and even cash incentives to encourage women to have more children. Yet the perks are available only to married couples, a prerequisite that is increasingly unappealing to independent women who, in some cases, would prefer to parent alone.
Babies born to single parents in China have long struggled to receive social benefits like medical insurance and education. Women who are single and pregnant are regularly denied access to public health care and insurance that covers maternity leave. They are not legally protected if employers fire them for being pregnant.
[…] China’s national family planning policy does not explicitly state that an unmarried woman cannot have children, but it defines a mother as a married woman and favors married mothers. Villages offer cash bonuses to families with new babies. Dozens of cities have expanded maternity leave and added an extra month for second- and third-time married mothers. One province in northwestern China is even considering a full year of leave. Some have created “parenting breaks” for married couples with young children. [Source]
While the government pushes for marriage as a means to boost fertility, systemic and largely unremedied issues of gender inequality have dissuaded some single women from the prospect of wedlock. Studies have shown that in China married women suffer larger gender pay gaps than single women, and the country’s gender pay gap has been increasing over the past two decades. Record youth employment may exacerbate these inequalities. Other recent studies have shown that married women spend twice as much time doing housework as their husbands.
Perpetual pandemic lockdowns have also made marriage more dangerous for women trapped at home with abusive husbands, as reports show an increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. As one anonymous anti-domestic violence volunteer in Shanghai wrote in Sixth Tone, “the country’s strict lockdown and quarantine restrictions often work to sever victims from the protections and services theoretically available to them,” adding “the system can make getting help seem harder than simply putting up with the violence.” Moreover, in addition to weathering the mandatory 30-day “cooling off” period imposed by the government, women seeking to divorce have had to suffer further delays in obtaining appointments at local civil affairs bureaus due to major backlogs.
Adding to these pressures is the social stigmatization against unmarried women. In a story that recently went viral on Chinese social media, one 27-year-old woman was hospitalized with difficulty breathing and numbness, and was later diagnosed with severe anxiety stemming from relentless demands from her parents to get married. Faced with such obstacles, many women have decided to carve out their own safe spheres of singledom. Cai Yuqi described in Sixth Tone how young Chinese are organizing to defend the rights of single people:
Singles’ groups are mushrooming on every major Chinese forum site. On Zhihu, a Quora-like Q&A platform, the “unmarried clan” tag has more than 20,000 followers. On Baidu Tieba, there are multiple singles’ forums, some of which have tens of thousands of members. On Douban, nearly 25,000 people are part of the “no marriage, no kid mutual aid group.”
[…] Many young Chinese, meanwhile, are becoming increasingly interested in the concept of singles’ rights. In January, a group of feminist activists organized the country’s first singles’ rights event: an online forum titled “Single-Unmarried People’s Rights in China.”
Attended by 108 people, the forum featured talks by legal professionals on issues including adult guardianship and the legal risks singles face when having children via a surrogate. The event also named the top 10 singles’ rights news stories in China. (“Safety issues for women living alone,” “Shanghai tightens home-buying rules for people out of wedlock,” and “single mother struggles to access government maternity benefits” led the list.)
Other activists are forming online groups focused on specific singles’ rights issues. Pata, a game designer from Guangzhou, runs a group for unmarried women trying to have children. [Source]
Offering real rights for married and unmarried women may cultivate broader support for the government’s pro-natalist agenda. Writing about China’s population crisis in Disruptive Asia this month, Mei Fong and Yaqiu Wang of Human Rights Watch called on the CCP to apologize for its decades of paternalism and abuse towards women seeking their own reproductive choices:
Say sorry for blaming them for the country’s negative population growth. Say sorry for stigmatising unmarried women in their late 20s by calling them “leftover women.” Say sorry for violating their rights to make their own choices on marriage, work, and reproduction and, in general, not doing enough to take down patriarchal systems that put the burden for having more children and caregiving squarely on women’s shoulders.
In March, for example, the Jiangsu provincial authorities partly attributed their negative population growth – occurring for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 – to “the significant increase in women’s educational level.” The tone of the announcement – as if women’s education is to blame for China’s population problems – riled many. “So, no more foot-binding, but brain-binding now?” a netizen commented on social media platform Weibo.
[… T]he government’s long history of restricting women’s right to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy through abusive, and sometimes violent means has instilled a deep fear and suspicion among many women in China that genuine attempts at reparation – however unlikely this might be to happen – would help alleviate. [Source]
The CCP’s past abuse of reproductive policies remains relevant decades later. In early July, health bureau officials in Quanzhou, Guangxi dismissed a couple’s request to investigate the disappearance of their toddler in the 1990s, admitting that the government had taken him away according to a “social adjustment” policy and that there is no record of his whereabouts. The couple shared the government notice on Weibo, prompting a huge public outcry, with the hashtag #QuanzhouOverBornKidCaseBeenReportedtoGovernment gaining nearly 60 million views. Days later, the Guilin city government announced that the director and deputy director of the health bureau would be suspended for ignoring the couple’s petition. Highlighting the government’s euphemistic language in justifying its family planning and gender equality policies, one Weibo user commented: “Children being aborted by the government is called ‘family planning,’ children being trafficked by the government is called ‘social regulation,’ women being trafficked is called ‘being given shelter,’ and the lockdown of Xi’an is called ‘implementing temporary control measures.’” CDT Chinese collected other netizen comments calling the government’s “social adjustment” policy nothing less than baby trafficking:
Weylen：A new term for human trafficking: “social adjustment.”
事先张扬的减肥事件：Since they didn’t keep any records, how can they prove that it wasn’t trafficking?
羽田共 ：A child was taken away, but no records were kept—state-sanctioned human trafficking?
欣喜巨蟹：How much blood and tears stain those four characters? [社会调剂, “social adjustment,” a euphemism for removing children from families that exceeded birth-control quotas.]
树杈上的柯希莫：Turns out the human traffickers were all working for the Family Planning Office.
小狗好乖·：Very soon, there will be a cover-up of this matter. They won’t allow anyone to delve too deeply into family planning policy during that era: there’s too much dirty laundry. [Chinese]