China’s shifting position on population control was signaled this week by a new postage stamp showing a happy family of pigs with three piglets – a strong signal to a populace long forced to have only one child per family and then grudgingly permitted to have two. The message was then transmitted even more clearly by a full-page article in a state-run newspaper mourning “the impact of low birth rates on the economy” and urging citizens to do something about it.
China’s postal service unveiled the 2019 Year of the Pig stamp on Tuesday. The pig family with three children was immediately taken as a sign of changing political winds in the authoritarian state, much as 2016’s Year of the Monkey stamp with a two-child monkey family presaged Beijing loosening its infamous “One Child” policy.
The Chinese government has not formally removed family size restrictions yet, but on Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal quoted observers who thought it was just a matter of time because China’s industrial ambitions are running into a severe shortage of young workers:
Many economists believe that China is facing a demographic crisis that will leave it with fast-rising elder-care costs and too few working-age people to sustain growth. They blame the one-child policy implemented in 1980, a time when fears of overpopulation prevailed.
The two-child policy that replaced it in 2016 has fallen short. The 1.3 million rise in newborns that year—to 17.9 million—was less than half what was expected, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and births last year slipped back to 17.23 million, well below the official forecast of more than 20 million.
One obstacle to boosting the birthrate is the cost of having multiple children, so financial incentives are being dangled. Local governments—some of which once forced women to abort a second child—are now offering extended maternity leaves, free baby formula and other perks.
In the northeastern province of Liaoning, whose fertility rate is among China’s lowest, the government is promising two-child families special tax, education, social-security and housing benefits. In the northwestern region of Xinjiang, the city of Shihezi is helping cover childbirth expenses for a second child, and extending maternity leaves. And in Hubei Province, the city of Xianning is offering two-child families housing subsidies and discounts on kindergarten.
Such is life in a micromanaged tyranny, where yesterday’s womb-crime against The People becomes today’s heavily subsidized act of reproductive patriotism.
The Chinese Communist Party People’s Daily newspaper ran an editorial on Monday strongly hinting that citizens should get busy replenishing the labor force right now and trust their rulers to make it legal within, oh, say, nine months or so.
“The impact of low birth rates on the economy and society has begun to show,” the People’s Daily warned. “Giving birth is a family matter, and a national issue, too.”
“In the face of low fertility, the government should take more targeted measures to solve it and satisfy people’s yearning for and pursuit of a better life,” the editorial advised, in what effectively amounted to the Chinese ruling class telling itself to ease up on population control. The editorial went even further and noted that upscale urban couples are reluctant to shoulder the expense of large families, so they will need financial incentives to procreate.
The Chinese Internet was surprisingly hostile to the People’s Daily editorial. It quickly became a trending topic on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, drawing hundreds of thousands of largely negative responses.
In short, the Chinese are tired of being told how many children to have by their control-freak government. “When you don’t want children, you force people to get sterilized. When you want more, you urge us to give birth. What do you think I am?” one Weibo user complained.
One of the most intriguing criticisms of the People’s Daily editorial read, “I used six wallets to buy a house. I don’t have any wallet left to raise a kid.”
In other words, the critic was using a popular Chinese idiom to say the couple used up all of the money they and their parents could provide to buy a home, so they cannot afford to raise multiple children.
That perspective is relevant to demographic discussions all over the world. It could be taken as either comforting or chilling that China is running into the same problem that affects nearly every advanced economy: the cost of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle makes upwardly mobile couples nervous about having large families, and it is a cold, hard fact that population growth requires a large number of couples to have three or more children. The failure of moving to a two-child policy that evidently alarmed China’s rulers offers strong evidence of that.
The question facing every advanced society is how best to encourage stable families with three or more children because nothing less will maintain the population necessary for economic growth and social welfare systems, especially as longer human lifespans dramatically increase the total cost of caring for the elderly. Stable families are vital because high birth rates without strong nuclear families are clearly a recipe for chaos. It is difficult to name a social pathology that is not made worse by illegitimacy and broken homes.
A variety of cultural and political forces complicates the business of encouraging large and stable families. In the West, we have spirited battles over the meaning of “marriage,” the role of religion, extended adolescence, and the culture of easy sex and abortion. In China, they are fed up with the Communist Party treating them as robotic industrial units who can be programmed to reproduce according to the needs of the state.