Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized the pivotal role women play in shaping a “new trend of family” in light of the country’s ageing population and record-low birth rates. With increasing economic stagnation, the rising costs of raising children, and a trend of Chinese hospitals downsizing or shuttering their obstetrics units, concerns about the nation’s declining birth figures intensified.
Why it matters
China recorded a mere 9.56 million births in 2022, marking an almost 10% drop from the previous year. Projections indicate this number could plummet to 7 million by 2023’s end. For the first time since 1961, China’s official population figures are declining, potentially jeopardizing the Communist Party’s economic growth ambitions. Concurrently, India has now overtaken China as the globe’s most populous nation, underscoring China’s demographic challenges.
As highlighted by state-run news outlet Xinhua, President Xi’s comments followed discussions with the newly appointed leadership of the All-China Women’s Federation, an organization functioning under the Communist Party. Xi emphasized that bolstering women’s roles is integral not just for female development but also for “family harmony, social harmony, national development, and national progress.” He urged the need to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing and offer guidance on young people’s perspectives on marriage, childbirth, and family.”
Despite these sentiments, several impediments deter young Chinese women from starting families. High childcare expenses, career hindrances, gender biases, and changing views on matrimony are notable challenges. Moreover, China’s existing policies and escalating economic concerns make child-rearing a daunting prospect for single women.
While the government appears hesitant, experts propose varied solutions:
- Cai Fang: A member of the monetary policy committee at the People’s Bank of China calls for swift action to elevate citizens’ income amidst post-pandemic unemployment. Fang advocates for a 4tn yuan ($551bn) boost for households to counter wage stagnation and reforms to increase the purchasing power of migrant workers.
- Liang Jianzhang: Expert on demographics from Peking University recommends bolstering China’s fertility rate, suggesting that 10% of its GDP be allocated as a direct stimulus to families.
Despite these proposals, Xi seems resistant to a significant stimulus or comprehensive national support. To the younger generation, especially those considering family expansion, Xi’s advice leans towards platitudes about resilience and perseverance, captured in his words, “Eat Bitterness.”
The big picture
At this critical demographic juncture, China faces significant choices. While President Xi’s words may offer a semblance of reassurance, his evident preference for austerity and his regular counsel for the youth to endure hardships indicate a preference for darker policies, maybe inspired by Soviet Romania. As China wrestles with these demographic shifts, the overarching question looms: Will the nation’s solutions emphasize direct family support, or might they lean towards restrictive policies reminiscent of past global attempts to control population dynamics?