China Set to Record First Fall in Population Since Great Famine

2021-04-28
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China Set to Record First Fall in Population Since Great Famine A man and a woman hold babies in an alley in Beijing in a file photo.
AFP

China will record its first population decline since the disastrous Great Leap Forward policies of late supreme leader Mao Zedong brought widespread famine to the country, killing tens of millions of people, according to a report in the Financial Times.

The report cited people familiar with the results of the latest Chinese census, which has yet to be made public despite being completed in December 2020, as saying that the overall population has fallen below the 1.4 billion mark, after exceeding it in 2019.

The report prompted calls from Chinese social media users for the government to remove restrictions on single parenting, while feminists pointed to a growing unwillingness among women to comply with patriotic demands that they marry and have families.

"If there aren't enough babies being born, then they need to normalize single parenthood," user @Xunyifeng said on the social media platform Weibo.com.

"Two women could even raise kids together as family, with their [female] lovers, or even two straight women with no sexual relationship, and the kids could take their mothers' surname," the user wrote.

User @Socialist_leftist_Alice agreed. "If raising childbirth payouts doesn't have an effect, then they need to allow single parenting."

User @Niu_Hulu_was_dying_and_sat_up_in_shock made an oblique reference to gender imbalance in China's population following decades of female infanticide during the "one-child" policies because of a preference for sons.

"This is essentially a conflict between the idea that every man needs a woman, and yet none of them are willing to raise daughters," they wrote.

Another user, @Sakurai Nakuri, commented that there is a growing unwillingness among educated Chinese women to have children at all, however.

"Most of the women I know who have gone to college and are currently in their 20s are single, and have little expectation that they will marry, and they don’t want children, either," the user commented.

User @Lei 2Rn also mentioned the skewed sex ratio, before commenting that current policy "doesn't recognize sexual minorities and other diverse ways of forming a family," while user @Linjiang Kawakami commented: "Only child here, not planning to get married in future."

User @A_nest_of_melons said the same was true of young migrant workers, although young women who stayed in their rural hometowns were more likely to have one or more children.

"My female friends from other places, or the women who work hard in migrant jobs, are all single and don’t want to fall in love, get married, have children for the foreseeable future. Including myself," the user wrote.

@earlytobedearlytorise_indestructible added: "Give birth to a child? Can't afford it!"

Growing political impact

The reluctance on the part of some Chinese women to deliver on the government's demand for more babies is already having a political impact, as well as sparking a torrent of online abuse from anti-feminist trolls, which feminists say bear the hallmarks of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s covert "public opinion management" operations.

The CCP recently began a crackdown on prominent Chinese feminists, shutting down social media accounts on Weibo, WeChat, and Douban.

"Douban, a social media site used by Chinese urban youth, closed more than 10 feminist groups and banned the keyword 6B4T, a feminist view from South Korea that advocates women not getting married and having no children," the Chinese Feminists Twitter account tweeted on April 13.

"Douban calls 6B4T an "extreme" and "radical" "ideology," it said.

Weibo said earlier this month that it had deleted the accounts of Liang Xiaowen and other Chinese feminists following complaints from users regarding posts containing "illegal and harmful information," warning against "boycott culture."

The Chinese Feminists account commented on Wednesday that the Financial Times report had generated considerable discussion among Chinese feminists.

"One common view is that [unwillingness on the part of women to give birth] is a spontaneous response of women to the impunity of gender discrimination and gender-based violence," it said.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Yaqiu Wang also tweeted about the FT report, saying: "Can we call it karma? For three decades, the CCP restricted birth through brutal force, intrusive birth control methods, fines and propaganda, and now people don't want more children."

'I fear what could come'

Wang raised the possibility of more coercive policies targeting women in future, this time to encourage population growth, rather than suppress it.

"Well, the CCP being the CCP, I fear what could come to boost birth rate," Wang wrote.

Experts and victims have described forced abortions, sterilizations, beatings, detention, and harassment as being the norm for decades under China's one-child policy, as local officials strove to meet set quotas and impose fines for "excess births."

In June 2012, Shaanxi-based Feng Jianmei was forced to terminate her pregnancy at eight months, sparking global outrage after a graphic photo of Feng and her dead baby went viral.

Another woman, Pan Chunyan, reported earlier that local family planning officials in Fujian province had forced her to get an abortion in her eighth month of pregnancy in April 2012.

The reported decline in population came after the government relaxed decades of draconian family planning controls in 2015, and switched to a two-child policy instead.

China's over-60 population is projected to rise from 254 million in 2019 to 300 million in 2025, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, while a declining number of younger workers will be paying into social security funds.

The People's Bank of China released a report titled "Awareness of our country's population transition and countermeasures," commenting on its Weibo account on April 14 that "education and technological progress are far from enough to compensate for the impact of population decline."

It called on the government to "fully liberalize fertility policies," and encourage people to have more children as soon as possible.

A basic human right

Lu Jun, co-founder of the Beijing Yirenping Center health rights advocacy group, said the government should remember that reproductive rights are also part of human rights.

"We should realize that reproductive rights are a basic human right," Lu said in an interview with RFA at the time of the People's Bank of China comment.

"The government has absolutely no right to tell individual citizens how many kids to have," he said. "Family planning policies are a serious violation of citizens' basic human rights."

He said growing awareness of women's rights meant that women were no longer available as "engines of fertility" to fulfill government policy.

New York-based political commentator Han Wu said a hidden death rate could also have contributed to the decline in population figures.

"It's true that young people are unwilling to have children nowadays in China, but that's also true for the rest of the world too," Han said.

"But the real hidden story behind population figures is that of excess deaths," he said. "If that is a factor, then, coupled with the unwillingness to give  birth, the impact on China's population will be pretty unpredictable."

"I think it's going to be really hard to get an accurate figure, including from the government," Han said.

According to data from the State Statistics Bureau, the number of births in China in 2019 was 14.65 million, a decrease of 580,000 from the previous year, and the lowest value since 2000.

Reported by Lu Xi, Qiao Long and Chingman for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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