This poses immense long-term challenges for everything from pensions to labor markets. Beijing’s leaders realize this. This is why China’s notorious “one-child policy” was loosened nationwide to a two-child one back in 2015.
But the next step will be far more dramatic. After decades of attempting to limit births, China is now moving in the direction of encouraging them. At last month’s national legislative meeting, premier Li Keqiang strongly hinted a national pro-natalist policy was in the works with his call for the country to attain an “appropriate” fertility rate.
This is exactly what has happened throughout East Asia. Facing their own demographic headwinds, Japan took this step in the 1990s; South Korea and Taiwan, in the early 2000s. Policies adopted are broadly similar, including baby bonuses, new parental leave policies and expanded preschool availability.
Effects are also similar: very little. Fertility rates in East Asia have not increased. They have instead plunged to the lowest in the world.
Why? Some reasons are structural, such as the high cost of housing and education. Others are cultural. Take traditional gender norms. Sweden and Japan both have the world’s best systems of paid paternity leave—on paper. Over 90 percent of Swedish fathers actually take it. Only 7.5 percent of their Japanese counterparts do. As Taiwanese sociologist Yen-shin Alice Cheng notes, much of East Asia’s declining marriage and fertility rates follow logically from the social dynamics such statistics imply.
After 1949, Mao sought to fundamentally break—and remold—Chinese society in pursuit of radical national mobilization. Combating deeply entrenched gender norms was one key component, including promoting female literacy and eliminating arranged marriages.
Could it happen again? Faced with a worsening demographic future, might Chinese leaders try to revitalize their own socialist history?
How better to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s birth this year than by reviving those state-funded preschools left to wither during the 1990s rush towards privatization? Imagine if Beijing did not just add yet another subsidy to the long list of benefits enjoyed by established urban residents. What if new policies targeted instead the children of modern China’s proletariat: migrant workers? Why not make it possible for tens of millions of migrant parents to actually live together with their toddlers in China’s cities rather than undergo heart-rending family separations for years on end?
Might Beijing eliminate legal barriers facing many Chinese who seek to establish families of their own? Say, by sweeping aside discriminatory regulations barring same-sex marriage and burdening single mothers. Or try to dramatically outdo Japan—and all of East Asia—through a mass campaign allowing new Chinese fathers more generous paternity leave and even making male Party cadres personally responsible for leading the way in actually taking it?
Unfortunately, the signs all point in the opposite direction.
Under Xi Jinping, China’s once-revolutionary Communist Party is increasingly wrapping itself in faux-Confucian ideological robes and topping it off with a heavy dose of male chauvinism.
Such attitudes are behind the fulminations by China’s ministry of education for more “manliness” in K-12 education and censorship by media officials of earrings on male pop stars. They are also behind Beijing’s crackdown on feminist activists and the sharp decline in the rate of official approvals of divorce applications, as detailed by scholars such as Leta Hong Fincher and Ke Li.
Given the current political atmosphere in Beijing, the real risk is that Chinese leaders will launch an aggressive pro-natalist campaign infused with traditionalist norms. With Beijing’s predilection for numerical targets, it is easy to imagine this resulting in a 180-degree inversion of the anti-natalist tactics pursued during the decades of the one-child policy, with local Party cadres graded on their success in increasing—rather than reducing—birth rates in their jurisdictions.
The effects would be immense. It would amount to Beijing not only junking what little remains of its own heritage of socialist feminism, but also raising traditional gender attitudes to the level of official propaganda—precisely the same attitudes that are at the heart of the demographic challenges facing the rest of East Asia. Hyperbole? Check out the front page news in China last month regarding the release of Xi’s collected speeches on family harmony.
Sure, in rich Chinese cities, this might generate some increased preschool funding. Or Singaporean-style state-subsidized in vitro fertilization programs for infertile couples (probably, given China’s political realities, under banners prominently featuring Xi’s beaming visage).
Far different realities would play out elsewhere and would likely include revised K-12 curricula and increasingly sexist depictions of correct life choices for boys (careers) and girls (motherhood). Imagine further waning official commitment to gender equality and the political rectification of Party institutions nominally committed to feminism—such as the All-China Women’s Federation. Other results could include spreading workplace discrimination against women and desperate efforts by local cadres to radically limit abortion and divorce in their jurisdictions, in order to hit whatever misguided statistics happen to get designated as “family harmony” performance targets tied to their annual salary bonuses.
As demographer Stuart Gietel-Basten notes: “[T]raveling down this pathway would be a mistake not only for the Chinese population, but also the Party.”
With the one-child policy, Party leaders already crippled China’s society with one ill-conceived crash demographic campaign. This is how they could repeat that feat—in reverse—a second time around. Doing so would simultaneously tank women’s rights, gender relations, and China’s future for decades to come.
Given the near total absence of women at the top of the Party hierarchy, it is all too easy to imagine this is exactly what the aging men running China might do.
Carl Minzner is Professor of Law at Fordham Law School. He is the author of End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (Oxford University Press, 2018).