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China Is Ending Its Population Controls, But Many No Longer Want to Have Children

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: November 24, 2021
Chinese Children population decline
Children queue for their turn on a slide on International Children's Day in Beijing on June 1, 2021, a day after China announced it would allow couples to have three children. (Image: NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

On Nov. 23, the Chinese government announced on its official website for the National Bureau of Statistics that China’s rural population is seeing a steep population decline. According to the Chinese Statistical Yearbook for 2021 (CSY-2021), the nation’s rural population is currently at 509 million, a 2.5 percent drop from last year. Men accounted for 264 million of the population, compared with just 245 million women. 

The pattern is one seen across the entire country, with 35 million women and girls “missing” as a result of the Communist Party’s one-child policy implemented in 1979. Despite the policy being modified to allow two children per couple in 2016 and three this year, China’s population growth has continued to slow rapidly. According to the new statistics, the 2020 birth rate fell to below 1 percent, the lowest in more than 40 years.

According to the CSY-2021, the current sex ratio in China’s rural areas is 107.91 males to every 100 females. In Beijing and Shanghai, the ratio has reached 130.93 and 120.21, respectively — a nearly 31 percent and 20 percent imbalance of men to women in the country’s two largest cities. 

In an analysis of China’s gender imbalance, The Guardian cited data showing that in the early 1980s there were 108 male births to every 100 females, only slightly above the natural rate. By 2000, that number had soared to 120 boys to every 100 girls, and in some provinces, such as Anhui, Jiangxi and Shaanxi, to more than 130. 

While implemented in an attempt to arrest rapid population growth — China reached 1 billion people in 1980 — the one-child policy forced parents to decide whether they wanted a son or a daughter. Especially in rural areas, where sons are considered indispensable for doing manual labor and carrying on the family line, this caused many parents to abort or abandon baby girls.  

Additionally, many girls who did end up being born were hidden from authorities so that their parents could try for a son. Forced to live “in the black,” they do not officially exist, and as such are barred from many opportunities for education, employment, and welfare. 

While the government’s pro-economy approach has brought a degree of prosperity, this economic growth has resulted in inequities, and corresponding changes to child protection have been slow to catch up. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Reversing course

The one-child policy was so stringenly upheld that many women were forced to have late-term abortions or even be sterilized if they were found to be “illegaly” pregnant. The authorities boasted that they prevented 400 million births. 

But starting in October 2015, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reversed course, rolling out the slogan “all families should have two children.” The two-child policy was promulgated in 2016, and this May, was further broadened to allow three children per couple. In August, the Chinese government released documents recommending all restrictions be dropped, and later even drafted plans to limit medically unnecessary abortions.  

Families in China are now encouraged to have more children in an attempt to “change the population structure,” and relieve the growing crisis that China’s elderly population is facing. 

In June, Chinese state-run media Xinhua conducted a poll titled: “Are you ready for the three-child policy?” The results showed that only a small fraction of respondents chose the answer: “I’m ready, I can’t wait.” Of the roughly 22,000 people who responded, an overwhelming 20,000 chose: “I won’t consider it at all.”

Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International in China said in response to the government’s new birth policy: “Governments have no business regulating how many children people have. Rather than ‘optimizing’ its birth policy, China should instead respect people’s life choices and end any invasive and punitive controls over people’s family planning decisions.”

population china children
Children play at a kindergarten in Yantai in China’s eastern Shandong Province on May 31, 2021. The Communist Party’s liberalization of its One-Child Policy to a 3-Child Policy shows the hard-to-reverse damage from decades of autocratic micromanagement in citizens’ family affairs. (Image: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Chinese indifferent to new policies

As China becomes increasingly industrialized, the costs and complexity of life have risen, making it difficult for even well-to-do families to have multiple children or procreate at all. 

Younger couples have said they are already stressed enough juggling a work-life balance, having a social life and barely able to keep themselves afloat, let alone having a child (or three). Meanwhile, older couples said the financial burden of having more children would simply be unmanageable. 

Additionally, many female professionals fear that having more children would incur discrimination from employers reluctant to pay for maternity leave. 

The high-stress environment of modern Chinese society has led many young people to embrace the “lying flat” philosophy, which calls for survival on a minimal income, without buying property, getting married, or having children. Similarly, others have observed a phenomenon of nei juan  or “involution,” which they use to criticize the extreme competition young professionals experience in urban Chinese cities. 

When the government announced that China’s birth rate in 2020 had hit its lowest in 43 years, users across social media were quick to debate the topic. Within a few hours, the news had received more than 700,000 likes.

One user said, “It will only continue to drop.”

“The nei juan is so severe. I’m not going to give birth to any children. My life is already miserable. Why should I have my children suffer, too?” another user commented.

Another user said, “If jobs don’t become more readily available, forget about the birth rate, the suicide rate will also hit a new record in the near future.”

As of 5 p.m. on Nov. 20, the Chinese phrase “Birth rate dropped below one percent in our country last year” had 240 million views and 28,000 comments on Chinese social media platform Weibo. 

Leo Timm contributed to this report.