A recent comment by Sheng Laiyun, deputy director of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, has attracted a fair amount of negative attention online. Addressing China’s declining population growth at an October 18 press conference, Sheng declared, “Although population quantity has declined, population quality is improving more rapidly.” After an associated hashtag made Weibo’s “hot search” list, it was mocked by Weibo users who pointed out the illogical and discriminatory nature of Sheng’s pronouncement. The hashtag has now been blocked on Weibo.
Population decline is a sensitive issue, and related content is often subject to censorship or deletion. China’s shrinking birthrate presents an enormous challenge for the government, which has attempted to stave off a demographic crisis by “talking up” marriage and family, as well as providing incentives for people to have more children. But this pro-natalist message has not resonated with many younger people, who are confronted with an economic slowdown, a high youth unemployment rate, a troubled housing market, the burdens and expenses of childcare (and sometimes eldercare), and persistent gender inequalities in both the home and the workplace. In this context, when many citizens feel like they are being treated as “huminerals” whose labor and childbearing potential exists only to be exploited, Sheng Laiyuan’s attempt to put a positive spin on population decline by emphasizing “quality over quantity” came across as insensitive, illogical, and more than a little desperate. It calls to mind other recent examples of “gobsmacking” official rhetoric and attempts to paper over negative news—such as back in August, when the government responded to high youth unemployment figures by abruptly suspending the publication of data on youth unemployment.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin raised eyebrows in April when, questioned about India’s population overtaking China’s, he responded that “population dividends don’t only depend on quantity but also on quality.” Chinese authorities and official media have previously used the label “low-end population” to refer dismissively to swathes of China’s own people.
CDT Chinese editors have compiled some reactions from Weibo and Chinese Twitter users to Sheng Laiyuan’s “quantity vs. quality” pronouncement. A selection of these comments are translated below:
鱼姜：Food delivery riders and ride-hailing app drivers are certainly more educated these days.
王自荣：Chinese people can always find a silver lining in bad things—things just “keep getting better.”
颓废_先生：The three pillars of the economy are live streaming, food delivery, and Didi [ride-hailing app].
枯木苏息：The birth rate is low but there are many births.
用户7399592106：Why not do away with anything that’s not state-controlled, and we’ll automatically become a first-rate developed nation?
FERNANDEZ_McGOW：Judging by the adjectives they use, the government has always treated population [growth] like pig-farming.
-饭黏子与蚊子血：Is there anything egalitarian about the phrase “population quality is improving?”
辣还好：Today I learned: we are all the cream of the crop.
LittlepinkKunkun：Although there are fewer chives, more is being extracted from them. No point in asking, because the answer is always “victory!”
Do小边：If you can’t find a way to spin bad news, keep trying. But the spin might end up humiliating you.
mike_habibiyo：This reflects the rising mortality rate of the “low-end population,” which is in line with government policy.
Py540790：The poor aren’t having any offspring, so population quality is improving quickly.
XianShengYue：At the very least, family planning targets have been met.