China’s demographic changes have made headlines again this week, as the government released statistics showing that the country’s population has declined for a second year in a row. Pronatalist policies appear to have done little to persuade women to have children, and high youth unemployment has deterred many from the prospect of creating new dependents. As a result, the country that was up until last year the world’s most populous is facing a likely future of falling birth rates and rising economic headwinds.
Liyan Qi from The Wall Street Journal compiled government statistics that show an “ultralow” fertility rate:
Births in China dropped by more than 500,000 last year to just over 9 million in total, accelerating the decline in the country’s population as women shrugged off the government’s exhortations to reproduce.
[…] Over the past year, China’s population dropped by 2.08 million, more than twice the drop in 2022. China ended 2023 with 1.410 billion people, the National Bureau of Statistics said Wednesday, down from 1.412 billion in 2022.
[…] The statistics bureau, which doesn’t break out deaths by month, said the number of deaths increased to 11.10 million in 2023 from 10.41 million in 2022.
[…] The latest data shows that the fertility rate is less than half of the replacement rate of 2.1, said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in Guangdong. That means that each generation will be less than half the size of the previous generation, he said. [Source]
“To be sure, last year’s sharp decline should be partly due to the [COVID-19] lockdowns and most likely new births will rebound in 2024, although the structural down-trend remains unchanged,” Larry Hu, chief China economist for Macquarie Group, told CNN. One study found that Xi Jinping’s abrupt dismantling of his zero-COVID policy in late 2022 may have caused almost two million excess deaths in the subsequent months. Moreover, Yun Zhou, a China demographer at University of Michigan, told Nikkei Asia that “[it] remains unclear to what extent the official data release has faithfully captured China’s COVID deaths, given the overall optimistic tone this official [government] report is trying to project.”
Ken Moritsugu from the AP described some of the official measures to incentivize procreation via government subsidies and narratives prescribing traditional family roles:
Local governments are offering incentives for new children. A municipality in China’s Inner Mongolia region has started offering payments of 2,000 yuan ($280) for a second child and 5,000 yuan ($700) for a third, as well as requiring that employers give an extra 60 and 90 days of paid maternity leave for the second and third child respectively, according to an online report by state-owned China National Radio.
President Xi Jinping told the new leadership of the All-China Women’s Federation last October that it is necessary to strengthen the guidance of young people’s views on marriage, parenthood and family and promote policies that support parenthood and cope with the aging of the population, according to a report on a government website.
“We must tell good stories about family customs, guide women to play a unique role in promoting the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation … and create a new culture of family civilization,” he was quoted as saying. [Source]
For many Chinese citizens, this is not enough to change their minds. “People will not have a child because of these incentives. The incentives are auxiliary, not the root cause. So I think it is harder to reverse this trend,” a Beijing resident told Reuters. One online commentator was picked out by The Guardian explaining their reasoning: “It’s because I love myself more, and I know that if I was born in a family that is not capable of raising and educating a child, I would suffer more, and I would not be able to experience the joy of life, so let’s cut off the suffering from my generation.” Another online opinion piece archived by CDT Chinese shared a humorous take on people’s reaction to government subsidies for childbearing, alluding to the country’s fraught property market:
Recently, on one social media platform, there was a lively debate over the question: “Would you be willing to have a child if you were offered a subsidy of one million yuan?” More than 2,000 people answered, and perhaps the funniest answer was this: “Yes, but it would not be an immediately available baby, but a pre-purchase baby. The government would have to make a 200,000 yuan down payment, with no guarantee that the baby would eventually be delivered, which means there might be some stalled or unfinished babies.”
Although this answer is obviously a joke, it says a lot about our current mindset and contemporary problems. [Chinese]
The hashtag #Population became a “hot search” topic on Weibo, with many Weibo users discussing the news that “China’s population has experienced negative growth for two consecutive years.” Widespread attention prompted censorship from some government-affiliated accounts. China News Service outlet Chinanews.com deleted a WeChat post that shared a report on the population and economic data released by the government, and a related Global Times Weibo post enabled comment filtering to control which comments could be displayed. Nonetheless CDT Chinese editors highlighted other comments describing how childbearing is simply unrealistic for most people, who instead resist pronatalist incentives:
代俊雯U：The low birthrate is a silent cry, a silent form of resistance by the masses.
Kiki98621043949：It makes me laugh to think that in the future, having children will become a way for people to show off their wealth.
噢噢噢噢是阿清：When the environment is not amenable to biological survival, it is only natural for us to stop reproducing. Our current environment is to blame for this decline. [Source]
Alexandra Stevenson and Zixu Wang at The New York Times charted the throughline between rising advocacy against sexual harassment, growing awareness of women’s rights, and skepticism towards government incentives for marriage and motherhood:
“During these past 10 years, there is a huge community of feminists that have been built up through the internet,” said Zheng Churan, a Chinese women’s rights activist, who was detained with four other activists on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015. “Women are more empowered today,” Ms. Zheng said.
Censorship has silenced much of the debate around women’s issues, sometimes tamping down on public discussion of sexual discrimination, harassment or gender violence. Yet women have been able to share their experiences online and provide support to the victims, Ms. Zheng said.
[…] “Instead of having more care and protection, mothers become more vulnerable to abuse and isolation,” said Elgar Yang, 24, a journalist in Shanghai.
Policies by the government that are meant to entice women to marry, she added, “even make me feel that it is a trap.” [Source]
Analysts are pessimistic about the potential for China’s birth rates to significantly rebound in the future. “It’s kind of locked in now… this is just the next year in this new era of population stagnation or decline for China,” Stuart Gietel-Basten, a population policy expert at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, told the BBC. At The Financial Times, Eleanor Olcott, Andy Lin, and Wang Xueqiao described how even the prospect of “dragon babies” will likely not reverse the downward trend:
“The population decline is not just increasing. The decline has more than doubled from the previous year,” said Wang Feng, an expert on Chinese demographics at the University of California, Irvine.
[…] “In the past there have been higher births in auspicious zodiac years,” said Wang. “But given the pessimistic economic outlook and pessimism among young people, I doubt we will see a noticeable rebound this year.”
[…] “Chinese women’s desire to have children is low. There is no sign that this will change, even as concerns about the demographic crisis increase and even if policymakers try to incentivise increased births through subsidies,” said Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist writer in New York. [Source]
Cindy Carter contributed translations and research for this post.