Last week, the Chinese government announced that the country’s population had declined for the first time in decades, setting off a cacophony of alarm bells among those concerned about China’s demographic destiny. Chinese women, by contrast, have largely ignored the hoopla. As demonstrated in numerous commentaries over traditional and social media this week, women have little interest in participating in the state’s latest pro-natalist project.
“[I]n terms of China’s population governance,” explained Yun Zhou, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology, “women’s bodies and women’s reproductive labor in different ways are being utilized or co-opted as the ways in which to achieve […] the state’s demographic, political or economic growth.” But many women have had enough. Some are explicitly linking their aversion to childbearing with their poor treatment by society and the government, which Yuan Yang at The Financial Times described as a women-led “birth strike”:
Feng Yuan, a veteran Chinese feminist activist, sees an opportunity in this moment: “The government knows it has to be better to women; yet it doesn’t listen to them.” The term “birth strike”, as used by Korean and American feminists such as the author Jenny Brown, is a way of turning low fertility into a rallying call for better conditions. In its focus on gross domestic product growth, Beijing has forgotten that the economy is made up of humans, who also need producing.
So far it has expected this work to be done out of duty. “The CCP’s official speeches emphasise that women should be responsible for caring for the young and old,” says Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.
Such speeches are useless in [e]ffecting a rise in birth rates. If over two millennia of Confucian teaching about the woman’s place in the home won’t do it, I don’t think any publicity campaign the all-male Politburo of the Communist party comes up with in 2023 will. As a friend explained: “Women who grow up in China have developed immunity to being endlessly nagged to get married and have kids.” [Source]
Vibrant debates have taken place on Chinese social media in the wake of the government’s announcement. What’s On Weibo documented negative online reactions towards opinion leaders in state-media outlets presenting solutions to the population crunch and calling on people to get married and have children in order to “contribute” to raising the country’s birth rates. Netizens pointed out that some of these propositions are merely treating people as “tools,” and that one such “opinion-leader” had a forty-something daughter who is allegedly not married herself. At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd and Lyric Li reported on the hashtags and online slang used to describe women’s feeling of exploitation:
In the days since the statistics put the spotlight back on [the population] issue, hashtags saying “is it important to have descendants?” or the “reasons you don’t want to have a child” have drawn debate on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Some users took issue with (often male) commentators who urged more births, responding that, while having a child should be everyone’s right, it isn’t anyone’s responsibility.
[…] Others used the recent neologism “renkuang,” which combines the characters for human and for a mine or mineral deposit, to voice displeasure at being treated like a raw resource exploited for economic ends.
The term — which can perhaps be translated as “humine” — joins a growing lexicon of China’s disaffected youth, alongside “lying flat,” “let it rot” and “involution,” all of which are used to capture frustration with government expectations of hard work and sacrifice without the offer of rewards. [Source]
Women are taking a stand against societal expectations that they should shoulder the disproportionate burden of childbearing. “It’s a very realistic assessment for women to say ‘I haven’t met a man that will support me in this task of combining work with child care or elder aged care and so I just won’t marry,'” said Doris Fischer, chair of China Business and Economics at the University of Würzburg. Simon Leplâtre from Le Monde described how some women are unwilling to make the sacrifice to have children in an environment that they perceive as pressuring them into subservience:
The situation makes Pepper feel bitter: “It seems like there will always be someone from the upper classes to wring out the people from the lower classes to consolidate their economic interests. So unless I manage to climb the social ladder, my child will also be a member of the oppressed class,” she predicts.
[…] On social media, Chinese women are critical of being treated as mere wombs by their husbands and in-laws, who expect them to have a child, and if possible, a son. “I’m not sure I’m ready for such a sacrifice,” said Yaqing (her first name has been changed). “For me, getting married means accepting to live with the Chinese patriarchal gender culture. In general, Chinese men look for fertile, obedient women under 30 that are not too ambitious so they can sacrifice everything for the family. Me, I couldn’t.” [Source]
Women’s disproportionate “burden of care” for children and family members is an added disadvantage in the workplace. “[E]mployers are discriminating against women as [they] are perceived to have more care burdens and are thus deemed as secondary workers,” said Yige Dong, assistant professor in the department of global gender & sexuality studies at SUNY Buffalo, who noted that such labor discrimination disincentives childbearing. Even as the Chinese government considers subsidizing I.V.F. procedures to help couples have children, labor rights remain a major obstacle. One woman told The New York Times: “The most stressful thing about I.V.F. is that I lost my job,” and since her operation, “I feel sick and dizzy all the time.” Lucas de la Cal from El Mundo shared the perspectives of other women who refuse to sacrifice career ambitions and economic stability in order to have children:
The extreme restrictions on births in China have marked several generations like Xiao [Lu]’s. “We have gone from women being forced to have an abortion or having to abandon the baby if it was the second one we had, like some cases I know of, to now being asked to have many children for the good of our country. But now we are the ones who don’t want to”.
[… Xiao] is 34 years old, single, a businesswoman, and does not have or want to have children. She says that, out of her group of urban friends from Guangzhou, who are around the same age as her, only one of them had a child last year. “Having children now would cut our career progression in a country where there is excessive competition, where women are tested much more than men, and where we have to make twice as much effort for everything. It is normal that now there are many who delay motherhood or give it up completely, because supporting a baby now is also much more expensive than before and not everyone has the means to do so,” she explains. [Spanish]
The Chinese state seems stubbornly committed to restricting women’s roles to mere “child-bearers.” During the China Media Group’s annual Spring Festival Gala last weekend, the women participants were reduced to scripted stereotypes based on traditional family values of motherhood, as highlighted in a now-deleted post from the WeChat account 荡秋千的妇女 (Dang Qiuqian de Funu, or “Women on Swings”—a female writers’ collective). The authors of the post stated: “In this Spring Festival Gala, women are missing. Their labor is invisible; their image has been defined for them.” In hope of a more equitable future, they called for women to be respected as individuals independent of their marital or familial status:
We look forward to when women will be able to take center stage—no longer only in subsidiary roles as mothers, daughters, or wives, but as full human subjects in their own right, making their voices heard and telling their own stories.
We look forward to when women from all walks of life will enjoy more decision-making authority and be able to help women as a whole to emerge from the shadows, no longer defined by others or hidden from view.
We hope there will come a day when, upon that stage, we will see not only that women exist, but also what their existence is like. [Chinese]
In addition to circumscribing the role of women, the Chinese state and state-media have been dismissive of, and even antagonistic to the role of non-traditional families in contemporary Chinese society. A recent essay posted to the WeChat account 流放地 (Liufangdi, “Place of Exile)” notes that by utterly ignoring the diverse range of families in China today, the Spring Festival Gala could be said to be “extremely hostile to non-traditional families”:
The Spring Festival Gala is growing increasingly out of touch with real life. Nowadays, there are large numbers of divorced families, single-parent families, DINK (“double income, no kids”) families, unmarried mothers, LGBTQ+ families, women who are married to gay men, and so on, but none of these groups are allowed to appear on the Spring Festival Gala stage. [Chinese]
With additional translation by Cindy Carter.