This month, China’s government began a nationwide poll of 500,000 urban and rural households to learn more about population trends. The survey, coming soon after China’s “once-in-a-decade” 2020 census, was, in the words of Reuters, “unexpected.”
China’s leaders look like they are now panicking over population decline. Will they force couples to procreate? Or will they industrialize the process of procreation?
The population survey came just days after Chinese leadership tried to talk up births. Xi Jinping, in remarks published by the official Xinhua News Agency on Oct. 30, told women to start a “new trend of family.”
Linking “family harmony, social harmony, national development, and national progress,” he said it is necessary to “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing and strengthen guidance on young people’s view on marriage, childbirth and family.”
To Xi’s point, something has to be done. Beijing reported that last year the country’s population fell by 850,000 people, the first decline since 1961, the final year of the Great Famine. In that famine, tens of millions of people perished as a result of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. The Global Times, a semi-official Communist Party newspaper, even maintains the population drop is the first in “recorded history.”
The country’s total population in 2022, the official National Bureau of Statistics announced, was 1.4 billion. The United Nations’ World Population Prospects 2022 suggests that China could have a population of less than 800 billion by 2100.
Even this low number could be far too high. Demographers from Xi’an Jiaotong University in late 2021 estimated that China’s population could fall by half within 45 years, assuming the country maintained a total fertility rate — generally the average number of children per female of child-bearing age — of 1.3.
China’s total 2022 fertility rate was lower: 1.18.
So, when the clock strikes 2100, China’s population could be a third of what it is today.
In response, the Chinese government abandoned its notorious one-child policy at the end of 2015. The country adopted a two-child policy beginning in 2016 and a three-child policy in the spring of 2021.
The country could have gone to a 20-child policy but that would not have made a difference. In fact, last year witnessed the lowest birth rate in the history of the People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese people, for various social and other reasons, are not enthusiastic about reproducing. First, there is the universal decline in fertility rates that has been seen for centuries in high-income countries. Moreover, China’s draconian population policies, put in place in the 1970s and bolstered by relentless indoctrination, have instilled anti-natalist values in the country. Economic decline has also been affecting the willingness of couples to bear children.
The mood across China is dark. “In this country, to love your child is to never let him be born in the first place,” wrote one commenter on a Chinese social media site last year.
In response, the central government is vowing, in Communist Party-speak, “to integrate high-quality population development with higher living standards, further optimizing relevant policies.” Among birth-promotion proposals publicized by the Global Times is “overthrowing extravagant and excessive wedding ceremonies.”
The Communist Party, however, is considering far more coercive policies. Since the first years of communism in China, the regime has been monitoring menstrual cycles, and a decade ago it began stepping up such efforts. Moreover, lower-tier governments are exacting penalties. For instance, in 2017, after the relaxation of the one-child policy, some localities required payment of a deposit on marriage with the funds returned only after the birth of a second child.
Furthermore, Chinese officials have been thinking out loud about forced procreation.
“We should make sure our policy and system allow our children to give birth to two children,” said Mei Zhiqiang, deputy director of the Family Planning Commission in Shanxi province, to a Chinese news site in February 2015, before the adoption of the two-child policy. “And they must have two children.”
“We already know how communist pro-natalism works,” Susan Yoshihara, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Council on Women Peace and Security, told me last week.
“Xi already has the intrusive family planning apparatus to apply coercive tactics like heavy fines, harassment and monitoring women’s pregnancies until birth. If overburdened Chinese parents cannot cope, Xi has orphanages to raise abandoned
Xi Jinping will undoubtedly use the nationwide social credit system being put in place, so, in all probability, it will not be long before births are necessary to achieve high scores. In any event, Xi has been imposing totalitarian social controls, so he will eventually fall back on dictatorial solutions, especially as his initial pro-birth efforts fail.
“Coercion is in the DNA of the [Chinese Communist Party],” Reggie Littlejohn, president of Women’s Rights Without Frontiers, wrote to me this month. “When persuasion fails, coercion often follows.”
If coercion does not work, there is one more step the Communist Party could take.
“Sooner or later, reproduction will be an industrialized process, it’s the only way to maintain a healthy birthrate,” Zhao DaShuai of the People’s Armed Police Propaganda Bureau wrote on X this August, posted with an image of a human fetus growing inside a machine.
“The key is to make it state run, ensuring absolute equality in this procedure.”
Chinese researcher He Jiankui created the world’s first gene-edited humans, so China has already taken steps that could someday support the industrialization of procreation. Only time will tell where the next steps will take them.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of “The Coming Collapse of China” and the just-released “China Is Going to War.” Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @GordonGChang.
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Author: Gordon G. Chang, opinion contributor