Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday, 28 February 2023


China’s collapsing birth and marriage rates reflect a people’s deep pessimism

A subway escalator in Beijing on Feb. 15. (Bloomberg) (Bloomberg News)
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Nicholas Eberstadt is the Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute.

China is in the midst of a quiet but stunning nationwide collapse of birthrates. This is the deeper, still largely overlooked, significance of the country’s 2022 population decline, announced by Chinese authorities last month.

As recently as 2019, demographers at the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations were not expecting China’s population to start dropping until the early 2030s. But they did not anticipate today’s wholesale plunge in childbearing.

Considerable attention has been devoted to likely consequences of China’s coming depopulation: economic, political, strategic. But the causes of last year’s population drop deserve much closer examination.

China’s nosedive in childbearing is a silent alarm. It signals deep disaffection with the bleak future the regime is engineering for its subjects. In this land without democracy, the birth collapse can be read as a landslide vote of no confidence in President Xi Jinping’s rule.

Official Chinese government statistics are far from perfect (Premier Li Keqiang once called China’s economic numbers “man-made”), but they offer a serviceable approximation of recent birth trends.

According to the data, births in China have fallen steeply and steadily since 2016, year after year. In 2022, China had only about half as many births as just six years earlier (9.6 million vs. 17.9 million). That sea change in childbearing predated the coronavirus pandemic, and it appears to be part of broader shock, for marriage in China is also in free fall.

Since 2013 — the year Xi completed his ascent to power — the rate of first marriages in China has fallen by well over half. Headlong flights from both childbearing and marriage are taking place in China today.

Of course, fertility levels, and marriage rates, are dropping all around the world. But these declines tend to be gradual, occurring across decades. China has been hit by seismic demographic jolts. Birth shocks of this order almost never occur under stable modern governments during peacetime. Swift and sharp fertility crashes instead usually reflect catastrophe: famine, war or other shattering upheavals.

What does it take to drive down a country’s birth totals by almost 50 percent in the space of just a few years? Estimates from the U.N. Population Division to consider:

  • During China’s Mao-era famine, in which tens of millions perished, birth levels fell by less than 40 percent between 1957 (the last year before the Great Leap Forward) and 1961 (the depths of the starvation).
  • During the chaos of the Soviet collapse, Russian Federation birth levels fell by less than 40 percent between 1988 (the year before the Berlin Wall fell) and 1994 (when male life expectancy fell to a gruesome 57 years).
  • In Yugoslavia’s hellish breakup and ethnic cleansing, birth levels in Bosnia fell by about 40 percent between 1990 (the last year before Yugoslavia’s breakup) and 1995.
  • Even Pol Pot, architect of auto-genocide in Cambodia, could not quite manage to force that nation’s birth total down by half during the Khmer Rouge nightmare: According the UNPD, birth levels in Cambodia dropped by 48 percent between 1973 and 1977.

Yet China — amid social order and economic health, not apocalyptic upheaval — has just experienced its own harrowing birth plunge. Why?

The answer most likely lies in the dispirited outlook of the Chinese populace itself. Absent disaster, one of the most powerful predictor of fertility levels the world over — across countries, ethnicities and time — turns out to be the number of children that women (also men) happen to want. More than any other factor, human agency matters in national birth patterns, a truth that should come as no surprise.

So, yes, China’s birth decline since 2016 can be explained — but only by a revolutionary, wildfire change in national mood. It would take a sudden, pervasive and desperately pessimistic turn of mind.

In 2016, before the plunge, Chinese fertility was already well below the replacement rate of around 2.1 children per woman, the level needed for population stability. The UNPD reckons that the 2016 rate was 1.77, or 19 percent below the stability target.

The subsequent six-year Chinese birth swoon has dragged fertility down to an extraordinarily low level: If the 2022 birth tally is accurate, nationwide fertility would now be less than half the replacement rate. Even if the collapse is arrested and fertility remains at that level, each new generation in China will be less than half as large as the one before it.

Much of East Asia is beset by super-low fertility — not just China but also JapanSouth Korea and Taiwan. But in China, it is occurring under a totalitarian regime exhorting its subjects to provide more issue for the empire.

The timing of China’s birth collapse matters: The downward spiral commenced immediately after the Chinese Communist Party suspended decades of coercive birth-control policy.

In 2015, Beijing’s population planners finally concluded that the consequences of their awful “one child policy” were inimical to state interests. So it was time to set population policy in reverse.

Note that the regime still claims authority over family size: “the birth of a baby,” in the words of the government-run publication People’s Daily, remains “a state affair.” But now Beijing wants more babies from its subjects. A dictatorship may use bayonets to depress birthrates — but it is much trickier to deploy police state tactics to force birthrates up.

Beijing has not yet figured out how to command the people to feel optimism about their personal futures — or thrill at the prospect of bringing more babies into a dystopian world of ubiquitous facial recognition technology, draconian censorship and the new high-tech panopticon known as the “social credit system.”

Instead, we see millions of young people joining spontaneous movements expressing alienation from work — tang ping (lying flat) — and from Chinese society itself — bai lan (let it rot). The Xi regime doesn’t know what to do about this new form of internalized civil disobedience.

Last year, during one of the regime’s innumerable, drastic pandemic lockdowns, a video went viral in China before authorities could memory hole it.

In the video, faceless hazmat-clad health police try to bully a young man out of his apartment and off to a quarantine camp, even though he has tested negative for the coronavirus. He refuses to leave.

“Don’t you understand,” they warn, “if you don’t comply, bad things can happen to your family for three generations.”

“Sorry” he replies mildly. “We are the last generation. Thank you.”

That moment prompted the spread in China of a despairing social media hashtag: #Lastgeneration.

The dictatorship has brought this demographic defiance upon itself. Xi calls his vaunted vision for the future the “China Dream.” #Lastgeneration is a reminder that the Chinese people increasingly seem to regard it as a nightmare.

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