China39s population shrank again in 2023 while birth rates continued

China's population shrank again in 2023 while birth rates continued to decline – The New York Times

China's ruling Communist Party is facing a national emergency. To fix the problem, the party wants more women to have children.

It has offered them perks like cheaper housing, tax breaks and cash. She also invoked patriotism and urged them to be “good wives and mothers.”

The efforts are not working. Chinese women are shying away from marriage and babies so quickly that China's population will shrink for the second straight day in 2023, adding to the government's sense of crisis over the country's rapidly aging population and its economic future.

China said on Wednesday that 9.02 million babies were born in 2023, down from 9.56 million in 2022 and the seventh straight year the number has fallen. Combined with the number of people who died during the year – 11.1 million – there are more elderly people in China than anywhere else in the world, and the number is increasing rapidly. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China's population was “1,409.67 million” at the end of 2023.

The shrinking and aging population worries Beijing because it deprives China of the working-age people it needs to stimulate the economy. The demographic crisis, which came sooner than almost everyone expected, is already straining weak and underfunded health and pension systems.

China accelerated the problem with its one-child policy, which reduced the birth rate for three decades. The arrangement also created generations of young girls who had only one child and were offered education and employment opportunities – a cohort that developed into empowered women who now see Beijing's efforts as pushing them back into the family .

Xi Jinping, China's supreme leader, has long spoken about the need for women to return to more traditional roles in the household. He recently called on government officials to promote a “culture of marriage and childbearing” and influence what young people think about “love and marriage, fertility and family.”

But experts said the effort lacked any attempt to address a reality that shaped women's views on child-rearing: deep-rooted gender inequality. The laws designed to protect women and their property and ensure their equal treatment have failed.

“Women in our country still don’t feel safe enough to have children,” said Rashelle Chen, a social media expert from southern Guangdong province. Ms. Chen, 33, has been married for five years and said she has no plans to have a child.

“It seems that the government's birth policy only targets the birth of babies but does not protect the person who gives birth to a child,” she said. “It does not protect the rights and interests of women.”

Propaganda campaigns and state-sponsored dating events encourage young people to get married and have children. In China, it is unusual for unmarried couples or individuals to have children. State media is full of calls for China's 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 so upset about her decision not to have children that they cry on the phone. “We are no longer your parents,” they tell her.

Women in China are now more aware of their rights due to increasing advocacy against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Authorities have tried to silence China's feminist movement, but their ideas about equality remain widespread.

“In the last decade, a huge community of feminists has formed over the Internet,” said Zheng Churan, a Chinese women's rights activist who was arrested along with four other activists on the eve of International Women's Day in 2015. “Women have more empowerment today,” said Ms. Zheng.

Censorship has silenced much debate on women's issues and sometimes muted public discussion of 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 promoting gender equality. For example, discrimination in the workplace based on gender, race, or ethnicity is illegal. In practice, companies court male candidates and discriminate against female employees, said Guo Jing, an activist who has helped provide legal assistance to women who face discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

“In some ways, women are more aware of gender inequality in all areas of life,” Ms. Guo said. “It is still difficult for women to get justice, even in court.” In 2014, she sued the state-owned company Dongfang Cooking Training School after she was told not to apply because she was a woman. She prevailed, but was only awarded about $300 in compensation.

A recent surge in shocking social media posts and news articles about acts of violence against women have captured the nation's attention, such as the brutal beating of several women in Tangshan at a restaurant and the story of a mother of eight who was found chained to the wall of one Hut.

Women often mention such acts of violence when discussing why they don't want to get married. Another example is changes to policies and regulations, such as a new rule requiring a 30-day cooling-off period before civil divorces can become final. Marriage rates have been falling for nine years. This trend, once confined primarily 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 on divorce cases by Indiana University professor Ethan Michelson found that 40 percent of petitions filed by women were rejected by a judge, often when there was evidence of domestic violence.

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

Popular sayings on the internet — like “A marriage license has become a license to spank,” or worse — are backed up by news reports. In just one of many similar cases last summer, a woman in the northwestern province of Gansu was denied a divorce petition despite evidence of domestic violence; A judge said the couple had to stay together for the sake of their children. Another woman in the southern city of Guangzhou was murdered by her husband during a 30-day divorce trial.

In 2011, a Supreme People's Court ruled that family homes would no longer be divided in a divorce, but would instead be awarded to the person whose name appears on the deed – a decision that benefits men.

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

That feeling of panic hasn't gone away.

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

The government's measures aimed at enticing women to marry “even make me feel like it's a trap,” she added.