The latest statistics from the Chinese government have brought attention to the country’s demographic shifts. Despite efforts to encourage childbirth through policies, women are still not having children and high youth unemployment has discouraged many from starting families. Consequently, China, previously known as the most populous country, is now facing a future of declining birth rates and economic challenges.
Liyan Qi of The Wall Street Journal gathered data from the government which reveals a significantly low 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.
In the previous year, China saw a decrease of 2.08 million in its population, which is more than double the decrease in 2022. The National Bureau of Statistics reported on Wednesday that China’s population at the end of 2023 was 1.410 billion, a slight decline from 1.412 billion in 2022.
The bureau of statistics, which does not specify deaths by month, reported a rise in the total number of deaths from 10.41 million in 2022 to 11.10 million in 2023.
According to independent demographer He Yafu, the most recent statistics indicate that the fertility rate is only 50% of the necessary replacement rate of 2.1. This suggests that each successive generation will be significantly smaller than the one before.
According to Larry Hu, the chief China economist for Macquarie Group, the significant decrease in births last year can be attributed in part to the COVID-19 lockdowns. However, it is expected that there will be a rebound in births in 2024. Despite this, the downward trend remains unchanged. One study revealed that Xi Jinping’s sudden abandonment of his zero-COVID policy in late 2022 may have led to approximately two million excess deaths in the following months. Additionally, Yun Zhou, a demographer from the University of Michigan, stated to Nikkei Asia that it is uncertain how accurately the official data reflects China’s COVID-related deaths, given the overall optimistic tone of the government’s report.
According to Ken Moritsugu of the AP, there are certain government initiatives and stories that aim to encourage people to have children by offering subsidies and promoting traditional family roles.
Some local governments are providing benefits to encourage families to have more children. For instance, a city in Inner Mongolia, China is now providing a payment of 2,000 yuan (approximately $280) for a second child and 5,000 yuan (around $700) for a third child. Additionally, employers are required to give an extra 60 days of paid maternity leave for the second child and 90 days for the third child, as reported by China National Radio’s website.
In October, President Xi Jinping addressed the new leadership of the All-China Women’s Federation and emphasized the importance of guiding young people’s perspectives on marriage, parenthood, and family. He also urged for the implementation of policies that aid parenthood and address the aging population. This information was reported on a government website.
According to the source, he stated that it is important to share positive stories about family traditions, encourage women to contribute to upholding the traditional values of the Chinese people, and establish a modern culture of family civility.
Many Chinese citizens remain unconvinced by the incentives offered to encourage childbearing. According to a Beijing resident interviewed by Reuters, these incentives are not the main factor influencing their decision. As one online commentator explained to The Guardian, their choice is driven by self-love and the desire to avoid potential suffering. A humorous opinion piece archived by CDT Chinese pokes fun at people’s response to government subsidies for having children, referencing the country’s challenging real estate market.
A recent discussion on a popular social media site revolved around whether individuals would consider having a child if offered a subsidy of one million yuan. Over 2,000 people participated, with one humorous response stating that they would accept the offer but the child would be a pre-purchased one. The government would be required to make a 200,000 yuan initial payment with no guarantee of successful delivery, potentially resulting in delayed or incomplete births.
This response is clearly meant as a humorous remark, but it also reflects our present way of thinking and modern issues. [Chinese]
The mention of #Population on Weibo sparked a lot of interest, as numerous users engaged in conversations about the announcement that China’s population has decreased for two years in a row. This garnered widespread attention and led to censorship from certain government-related accounts. A post on WeChat by China News Service’s Chinanews.com, which shared a report on the government’s population and economic data, was removed. Additionally, Global Times’ Weibo post implemented comment filtering to restrict which comments could be seen. However, editors at CDT Chinese highlighted other remarks noting how it is unfeasible for most individuals to have children and how they resist policies that encourage procreation.
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 from The New York Times created a chart that illustrates the connection between the increasing movement against sexual harassment, the greater recognition of women’s rights, and the doubt surrounding governmental benefits for marriage and motherhood.
“In the last decade, a large community of feminists has formed online,” stated Chinese women’s rights advocate Zheng Churan. In 2015, she and four other activists were detained on the day before International Women’s Day. “Women have gained more power in society,” Ms. Zheng added.
Restrictions on freedom of speech have significantly reduced the amount of open conversation surrounding topics related to women’s rights. This has resulted in a suppression of discourse on issues such as sexual discrimination, harassment, and gender-based violence. Despite this, women have found ways to use the internet to share their personal stories and offer support to those who have been victimized, according to Ms. Zheng.
According to 24-year-old journalist Elgar Yang from Shanghai, rather than receiving increased care and protection, mothers often experience a heightened vulnerability to abuse and isolation.
According to the source, the government’s efforts to encourage women to get married can feel like a trap.
Experts are not optimistic about the possibility of China’s birth rates making a significant recovery in the coming years. Stuart Gietel-Basten, a specialist in population policies at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, stated to the BBC that the country is now locked into a new era of stagnant or declining population. In an article for The Financial Times, Eleanor Olcott, Andy Lin, and Wang Xueqiao explain that not even the idea of “dragon babies” is likely to reverse the downward trend.
Wang Feng, a specialist in Chinese population studies at the University of California, Irvine, stated that the decrease in population is not only on the rise but has also more than doubled compared to the previous year.
“In previous years, there has been a greater number of births during auspicious zodiac cycles,” stated Wang. “However, based on the negative economic forecast and the pessimism of the younger generation, I am skeptical that we will witness a significant increase this year.”
According to Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist writer in New York, the desire for children among Chinese women is currently low and there are no indications that this will change. This is despite growing concerns about the demographic crisis and potential efforts by policymakers to encourage more births through subsidies.
Cindy Carter provided translations and conducted research for this post.