Antonis Polentas: Demographic policy in China – From tragedy to dystopia?

China Chinese demographic policy crisis decline population society family

A recent data release for 2021 shows a lot about demographic policy. Specifically, the report found that for another year, births in China fell in 2021, while population growth was only 480,000, a very small figure for a country of 1.4 billion inhabitants. For the same year, 13 of China's 31 provinces saw population declines, which has been recorded for years mainly in Northeast China, a geopolitically important region and old center of China's traditional industry.

The highest birth rate was registered for another year by the province of Guangdong in the south. Guangdong due to the rapid development of its economy especially in the fields of new technologies has attracted many young people (mainly scientists).

This dynamic and relatively young population keeps the province's fertility rate high by today's Chinese standards.

But the overall picture is disappointing as far as the results of recent measures aimed at increasing births in China are concerned. It seems that the abolition of the "one child policy" was decided too late.

The People's Republic of China, from its earliest years, has dealt with the issue of governing its vast population. In the 1950s, however, it was difficult to come up with concrete proposals because there was a lack of population records based on scientific methods.

Mao Zedong had a strongly voluntarist view of politics, that is, he placed great emphasis on the human factor and the mobilisation of the masses, so it was difficult for him to accept the adoption of birth control policies.

Any discussions stalled over the next decade with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution which persecuted scientists who proposed such measures.

From Mao to the " one child policy"

In the same decade China saw a jump in births especially in rural areas. The last years of the Maoist period were marked by efforts by some of the Chinese political elite, mainly around Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, to limit births in an indirect way.

Such measures were the prohibition of marriages at very young ages, the mandatory passage of certain years between births, etc.

By the end of the 1970s, when the population policy debate is taking place, the fertility rate in urban centers had fallen to relatively low levels, while in rural areas, although higher, it was on a downward trend. As 1980 approached, China's population reached 1 billion.

The Chinese even today say "ren tai duo" ("too many people") with a strongly negative connotation. The image of a China with a vast and largely impoverished population did not match the post-Maoist elite's vision of economic growth and enrichment. There have been many proposals to address the "problem".

Beijing promises lenient... quarantine to prevent protests

The new leadership under Deng Xiaoping felt it imperative to sever all ties to the Maoist past and rejected proposals for indirect birth control. Instead, the proposal for direct control was adopted, which provided for penalties for those couples who had more than one child (in more than one pregnancy).

China's lack of a welfare state made Chinese families, especially in rural areas, invest in their children as security for old age: children would take care of parents when they could no longer work.

This was a major reason why families preferred boys because (according to tradition) it was the bride who went to the groom's home and family and not the other way around. Therefore, the announcement of the “one-child policy” surprised the Chinese people and caused a great disturbance.

"Quality" instead of "quantity"

When the policy was enforced with strict measures, families, especially in the countryside, tried to ensure that their only child was a boy. Soon, China would become the country with the largest imbalance in the numbers of men and women, with tragic results.

Today tens of millions of Chinese men are unable to find partners. In the Chinese language the expression "bare branches" describes the ever-increasing number of this part of the male population.

After the Deng era, and while the fertility rate had fallen well below 2, the governments of Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and Hu Jintao (2002-2012) zealously pursued this destructive demographic policy emphasizing the importance of the "quality" of the population as opposed to the "quantity".

The generation of "little emperors" would not face the financial difficulties of previous generations because the family property would go to one child and not be shared.

The "one child" policy had now acquired a strongly symbolic role: it was the symbol of the new, economically developed China, of the modernisation of Chinese society. Local Communist Party officials organized sterilizations as a public spectacle in squares to show their loyalty to the leadership.

In 2008 , the great earthquake in Sichuan province had among other victims many school children who collapsed. Parents, who had lost their only children, ran desperately to reverse the sterilizations that had been done to them.

From tragedy to dystopia?

The arrival of Xi Jinping marked a shift in China towards the country's overall power and not just economic power. The specter of a shrinking population did not fit the image of a "powerful" China.

The "one-child policy" stopped (without criticizing the previous governments, of course) and was gradually replaced by policies that incentivised births.

But societies unaccustomed to few children are hard to suddenly want more, especially when the number of children is seen as inversely proportional to wealth and quality of life. This shift in demographic policy has begun to create an image of dystopia in China.

Women are now seen as somehow having a national duty to bear children, while those who do not bear children (as well as LGBTI groups) are morally condemned.

Men desperate for the difficulty of finding a partner are increasingly resorting to courting and wooing women who choose to have a relationship with strangers or live alone.

China is now moving from the tragedy of the "one child policy" to the dystopia of an aging, sexist and oppressive society.

Antonis Polentas is a columnist for SLPress.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor