China’s population shrank again in 2023 as births continue to fall

The ruling Chinese Communist Party is facing a national emergency. To remedy this, the party wants more women to have more children.

He offered them benefits, like cheaper housing, tax breaks and money. He also invoked patriotism, calling on them to be “good wives and mothers.”

Efforts don’t work. Chinese women are fleeing marriage and children at such a rapid rate that China’s population will decline for the second year in a row in 2023, accelerating the government’s sense of crisis over the country’s rapidly aging population and economic future.

China said on Wednesday that 9.02 million babies were born in 2023, up from 9.56 million in 2022 and the seventh consecutive year of decline in the number. When you add in the number of people who died during the year – 11.1 million – China has more elderly people than anywhere else in the world, a number that is growing rapidly. China’s total population stood at 1,409,670,000 at the end of 2023, according to the State Bureau of Statistics.

The shrinking and aging population worries Beijing because it deprives China of the working-age population it needs to fuel its economy. The demographic crisis, which arrived earlier than expected, is already putting a strain on weak and underfunded health and pension systems.

China has persisted with this problem with its one-child policy, which has depressed birth rates for three decades. The rule also created generations of unique girls who benefited from education and job opportunities — a cohort that transformed into empowered women who now view Beijing’s efforts as a return to home.

Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has long spoken of the need for women to return to more traditional roles within the home. He recently urged government officials to promote a “culture of marriage and procreation” and influence what young people think about “love and marriage, fertility and family.”

But experts said the efforts did not attempt to address a reality that has shaped women’s views on parenting: deeply ingrained inequality between the sexes. Laws meant to protect women and their property, and ensure they are treated equally, have failed.

“In our country, women still don’t feel safe enough to have children,” said Rashelle Chen, a social media professional from the southern province of Guangdong. Ms Chen, 33, has been married for five years and said she had no plans to have a baby.

“It seems that the government’s birth policy is only aimed at making babies but does not protect the person giving birth,” she said. “This does not protect the rights and interests of women.”

Propaganda campaigns and state-sponsored dating events encourage young people to marry and have babies. In China, it is rare for an unmarried couple or a single person to have children. State media is full of calls for Chinese youth to play a role in “rejuvenating the nation.”

The message was received by parents, many of whom already share traditional views on marriage. Ms. Chen’s parents are sometimes very upset about her decision not to have children crying on the phone. “We are no longer your parents,” they tell him.

In China, women are now more aware of their rights thanks to the rise of advocacy against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Authorities have attempted to silence China’s feminist movement, but its ideas on equality remain popular.

“Over the past ten years, a huge community of feminists has emerged through the Internet,” said Zheng Churan, a Chinese women’s rights activist, arrested with four other activists on the eve of International Women’s Day. woman in 2015. “Women are more empowered today,” Ms. Zheng said.

Censorship has silenced much of the debate around women’s issues, sometimes stifling public discussion about sexual discrimination, harassment or gender-based violence. Still, women were able to share their experiences online and provide support to victims, Ms. Zheng said.

On paper, China has laws to promote gender equality. Discrimination in employment based on gender, race or ethnicity is illegal, for example. In practice, companies advertise to male candidates and discriminate against female employees, said Guo Jing, an activist who has helped provide legal support to women facing discrimination and harassment. sexual in the workplace.

“In some ways, women are more aware of gender inequality in all walks of life,” Ms. Guo said. “It is still difficult for women to obtain justice, even in court. » In 2014, she joined a state-owned company, Dongfang Cooking Training School, after she was told not to apply for a job because she was a woman. She won her case, but only received about $300 in compensation.

A recent surge in shocking social media posts and news reports about acts of violence against women has drawn national attention, such as the savage beating of several women in Tangshan at a restaurant and the story of a mother of eight children found chained to the wall of a cabin.

Women often cite such acts of violence when explaining why they do not want to marry. Changes to policies and regulations, such as a new rule requiring a 30-day cooling-off period before civil divorces can be made final, are another. Marriage rates have been declining for nine years. This trend, once limited to cities, has also spread to rural areas, according to government statistics.

Another reason women say they don’t want to get married is that it has become more difficult to obtain a divorce in court if it is contested.

An analysis of nearly 150,000 court rulings in divorce cases by Indiana University professor Ethan Michelson found that 40 percent of petitions filed by women were denied by a judge, often when he there was evidence of domestic violence.

“There have been so many strong signals from above, from Xi’s own mouth, that family is the foundation of Chinese society and family stability is the foundation of social stability and national development,” Mr. Michelson said. “There is no doubt that these signals reinforced the judges’ tendencies,” he said.

Popular sayings online – such as “a marriage license has become a license to beat,” or worse – are reinforced by reporting. Last summer, in one of several similar cases, a woman in the northwestern province of Gansu was denied filing for divorce despite evidence of domestic violence; a judge said the couple must stay together for their children. Another woman from Guangzhou, in the south of the country, was murdered by her husband. during a 30-day reflection period in the event of divorce.

In 2011, a Supreme People’s Court ruled that family homes would no longer be divided in cases of divorce, but allocated to the person whose name appeared on the deed – a decision that favored men.

“This decision really scared a lot of women in China,” said Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.”

This feeling of panic has not gone away.

“Instead of receiving more care and protection, mothers become more vulnerable to abuse and isolation,” Elgar Yang, 24, told a reporter in Shanghai.

Government policies aimed at encouraging women to marry, she added, “even make me feel like it’s a trap.”