The significance behind China’s population decline | Live with Lizzi Lee

Politics & Current Affairs

China has rolled out a slew of policies to boost its shrinking population. Yun Zhou, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Department of Sociology, talks about the issues behind the demographic crisis, but also warns of the policies’ impacts on gender inequality and what might come next.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Lizzi Lee: Hello and welcome to this episode of Live with Lizzi Lee powered by the China Project. I am your host, Lizzi. Joining me today is Professor Yun Zhou, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Sociology. Thank you so much, Professor Zhou, for joining me today.

Yun Zhou: Thank you for having me.

Lizzi: So, Professor Zhou, help us understand the significance of China’s population decline.

Yun: Thank you so much for the question. And yes, it has been in the news a lot, but in some ways, China’s population decline has been a long time coming. And this is by no means a surprise. If we were to think of population size, immigration aside, really, we were thinking about birth and death. And China’s birth rate has stayed below the replacement level since the early 1990s. And China’s labor force over the past few years has also been declining.

But I also want you to note that in thinking about population size, it certainly matters, but population composition truly matters. So what the population is made up of, with regard to age and also with regard to sex? So in some ways, China’s demographic crisis or the issue with China’s population is also that the sex ratio is deeply imbalanced.

Lizzi: I see. So how is China’s population crisis different from that of, say, you know, Germany, South Korea, or Japan? Those countries we know are also facing the problem of an aging population.

Yun: Yeah, I’m really glad you are bringing this comparative perspective. And you are absolutely right that China is by no means the only country facing the decline of birth. Japan’s declining fertility rate happened decades ago. Scholars generally find that births decline with or alongside socio-economic development, so birth declines as norms about marriage and childbearing change, births decline alongside shifts in gender roles. So what are the desired or expected roles for women and men to fulfill? The lesson for China is, in some ways, twofold. So, on the one hand, if we were to think historically, China’s one-child policy has treated China’s large population as an issue.

But if we were to think about population declines alongside social, and economic development, then the question becomes, was the one-child policy a policy that created immense human suffering and it restricted women’s bodily autonomy? Was that necessary? And on the other hand, in recent years, turning to countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea in East Asia, and southern Europe, if we were to think about people’s transition to higher order versus second birth surgeries, oftentimes scholars find that equal division of labor at home, greater ability to reconcile the incomplete, often incompatible or extended work family demands is often associated with lack greater likelihood or intention to transition to higher order birth.

So for China and now the U.S. in this, if we were to think about incentivizing birth as an objective or a desire or in any way, then gender equality or gender equity should not be left out of the discussion. Births shouldn’t be incentivized just to co-opt women’s reproductive labor to meet some elusive demographic, political, and economic goals.

Lizzi: And when economists talk about China’s population decline, they’re also concerned about the potential economic or political consequences. I wonder if you can help us understand those aspects a little bit more.

Yun: Yeah. So for China, over the last several decades, the population has always been central to the state’s political and economic objectives. So the one-child policy was originally set up based on pseudoscientific demographic projections as China was coming out of the cultural revolution. And the Chinese leadership at the time was grappling with regaining or reestablishing its political legitimacy. Economic development was looked at as ways in which to achieve this goal. And reducing or limiting births to one child per married heterosexual couple was viewed as this way in which the population can be designed to achieve that goal. So in many ways, the population has always been a deeply economic and political issue in China. It is as much a demographic issue as it’s a political issue. And nowadays, not nowadays, with the population aging and with a shrinking labor force, the issue becomes incentivizing birth for demographic, political and economic targets.

Lizzi: Right. And in terms of government policy, now we have this trend of a declining population. What do you expect the Chinese government will do in the future?

Yun: I will speak with respect to population policies. I’m sure there will be policy changes or policy considerations in terms of labor rights-oriented or in terms of rural governance. So I will speak on population policies. So since 2016, China has been universally relaxing the one-child policy. The 2016 universal two-child policy and the 2021 universal three-child policy. This is after iterations that granted a partial relaxation of the one-child policy. But what we have been observing is that the two universal relaxations in 2016 and 2021 have not produced sustained growth in birth as desired by the Chinese leadership.

So now the question becomes, what’s next? And the question, which is an open question, becomes to what extent or to what extreme will the Chinese leadership goal in terms of incentivizing birth. What would the policy look like? Are births going to be incentivized by providing better infrastructure or by dealing with the pervasive labor market’s gender inequality and gender discrimination? Or are births going to be incentivized in similarly restrictive and harmful ways, just as it has been restricted historically? And I think that remains very much an open question to observe. And I do want to note that we do see some anecdotal evidence or journalistic reporting about attempts to limit, for example, vasectomy for unmarried young men. But in terms of scholarly evidence, it remains an open question, and I think it is something that would need to be addressed.

Lizzi: Fantastic. As you mentioned, China’s population problem is intertwined with its gender politics. What’s your thinking on the implication on gender equity or gender equality?

Yun: Yeah. Thank you for this question. I think the link between the decline of birth, the link between population dynamics is so closely linked to gender politics, and it’s often a multifaceted and very much nuanced link.

So in terms of China’s population governance and throughout the one-child policy era and since its universal relaxations, what we have been observing is that women’s bodies and women’s reproductive labor in different ways are being utilized or co-opted as the ways in which to achieve demographic the state’s demographic, political or economic growth.

So even with a relaxation to the one-child policy, it’s still very much about co-opting women’s reproductive labor rather. The concerns are not reproductive autonomy or women’s human rights regarding reproduction. But on the other hand, the one-child policy and its universal relaxation also created different responses, even among women, Chinese women themselves, to the policies.

Chinese women are not a monolithic group. So throughout the one-child policy era, we also see scholarly writing about, for example, some women viewed the relaxation of the one-child policy as relieving women from their reproductive burden. Or that we have seen writings about highly educated urban singleton daughters view the one-child policy as providing a chance so that they no longer have to compete with male siblings for parental investment.

But the question has always been, you know, all these perceived more nuanced “benefits” is at whose cost and at what cost. But the general kind of answer to this question is gender equity. And gender equality is such a fundamental aspect in trying to understand demographic issues. And we should not lose sight of that and try to understand population size and composition as a pure issue of political and economic and social engineering.

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