As China placed parts of a new space station into orbit and landed a robot on Mars, only one news item competed for equal attention among journalists and Sinologists: 10-year population census data. , published more than a month late by the National Bureau of Statistics, Statistics. Rumors circulated by the international press indicated a reduction in the population for the first time in more than 50 years and predicted the onset of a demographic catastrophe, capable of halting the great economic growth observed in the country for more than four decades.
The results brought momentary relief to Beijing, but the outlook was far from optimistic. The population has actually increased: from 1.34 billion in 2010 to 1.41 billion people in 2020, consolidating China as the most populous nation in the world. But the good news ended there.
Last year, only 12 million babies were born in China, marking an 18% drop from 2019 (14.65 million) and reaching the mark for the fourth consecutive year of declining statistics. These are astronomical numbers, but insufficient to contain a bigger problem: the population is aging rapidly (the proportion of elderly people in 10 years has risen from 13% to over 18%) and soon there will be few young people of age. work to work and the economy continues to grow.
Doctor in demography from UFMG (Federal University of Minas Gerais) and former professor at the National School of Statistical Sciences linked to IBGE, researcher José Eustáquio Diniz Alves studies the downward trend in the Asian country and explains the historical reasons for the problem. The author of several articles on the subject, Alves claims that birth rates were high around the world in the early 1950s, but that they naturally fell with the democratization of access to contraception, to education. and the expansion of the labor market.
In China, however, families continued to grow, especially after the Great Leap Forward, the disastrous policy imposed by Communist leader Mao Zedong to overtake the British economy and which ended in the deaths of more than 40 million people.
“Families lost many children to famine until the policy ended in 1960 and wanted to ‘replace’ the deceased children. In addition, the cultural revolution [1966-1976] it has totally disrupted the health sector, sweeping away the institutionalities that existed in family planning and practically ceasing access to contraceptive methods, which has caused the Chinese fertility rate to reach an average of six children, ”recalls the professor.
The gaps led to a record increase in the so-called demographically dependent population, meaning that the majority of Chinese were still of school age and, even working in the countryside, would be unable to achieve productivity levels. that would generate economic growth. . In the last years of the Mao government, China adopted an advertising campaign to encourage a reduction in the number of children, with a larger age gap between pregnancies and better quality, and significantly reduced new births : From 5.7, the fertility rate fell to 2.7. But the death of Mao and the arrival of Deng Xiaoping to the national leadership doubled the bet in the country.
By claiming that continued population growth thwarted his four modernization policies (industry, agriculture, defense and science and technology), Deng radicalized and in 1979 launched the one-child policy, one of the main causes of the demographic problems facing China today.
“ Authoritarian and disastrous policy ”
Under the new rules, couples can have only one child, with rare exceptions for ethnic minorities and some rural areas. Anyone who broke the law was subjected to abortions and forced sterilization, as well as heavy fines and even jail terms. For a while this seemed to work: births dropped steadily in the years that followed, followed by thousands of infanticide cases (as, in Chinese tradition, boys are preferred, female babies were murdered before or even after childbirth) and the emergence of a vast system of trafficking in children rejected by their parents.
“It was enough to raise the awareness that began at the beginning of the decade, but the Chinese preferred to adopt an authoritarian policy, which seriously undermines fertility rights and poses problems of proportion between men and women today.” hui, ”says Alves. The demographer explains that the idea envisaged “to fatten the middle of the age pyramid, generating what we call a demographic bonus, essential to all the countries which have known periods of continuous development”.
The advertising poster displayed in the Chinese campaign bears the caption “I have my only child certificate”. Katte Belletje / CC BY-NC 2.0
The strategy has flooded the labor market with childless youth, ready to work long hours and support the Chinese economy. The one-child policy was officially abolished in 2015 (it is now possible to have two), but there are still signs of exhaustion: if, before the census, UN statisticians predicted the Chinese numbers began to shrink between 2027 and 2029, data released this month shows the drop could come much sooner than expected.
“It is very likely that we will start to see a reduction from next year or 2023. By the end of the century, China is expected to lose 400 million people, almost double the population of Brazil. This is an almost irreversible trend, given the current fertility rate of 1.3 children, well below the 2.1 necessary for what we call demographic replacement, that is to say the rate. considered minimal to keep the population stable, ”explains José Eustachian.
‘Chinese is used as a government reproduction tool’
Author of two books, “Facing the Dragon” (Matrix Editora) and “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China” (not published in Brazil), on the feminist movement and the impact of population policies on Chinese women, Columbia University Assistant Professor Leta Hong Fincher argues that there is a long history in Communist China of using women as reproductive tools to meet government-imposed demographic demands: when births are to be reduced, there are forced abortions, and when they need it. To increase, there are entire campaigns dedicated to embarrassing those who would rather not be a mother and remain single.
“However, I think that increasing the number of births will be an extremely difficult task because they [o governo] they don’t want any babies. They must be the product of young people, city dwellers, married couples and the Han ethnic majority. The party is not interested in having more Uyghur Muslim children or daughters of single mothers, ”she said. “And that’s a big deal. In my research, this ideal, young, young mother is concerned about the costs of supporting a baby. She is concerned about her professional success and the impact that this will have on her ability to take care of her loved ones, who are increasingly older and dependent ”.
Fincher argues that higher spending on a welfare system and financial subsidies, in addition to creating a network of child care centers, could be benefits that would help convince women to have more children. Even so, the professor says she does not see a government “ready to deal with these problems”. On the contrary, the authorities seem to find weapons in the propaganda and public embarrassment to solve the problem.
Professor at Columbia University, United States, Leta Hong Fincher is struggling to reverse China’s population decline. Nora Tejada / Personal archives
Since 2007, state media outlets have started to use the term “shèngnǚ” (or “surplus women”) in a pejorative manner to mock “high-quality young people, graduates of higher education, capable of marrying. and who, despite this, decide not to marry. be mothers or start a family ”.
“China is supported by an authoritarian model that depends on patriarchal and family control on the traditional model, with men, women and children. The awakening of feminism and rising levels of women’s education – a global trend also seen in China – defy this logic and make women more aware of the costs and sacrifices of this choice. [ser mãe]», He analyzes.
“Perhaps a relief from these statistics is women again, this time single women who are not allowed to have children alone. Children are born without ‘hukou’ [documento de identidade essencial para o acesso a serviços públicos chineses]. “
Demographer José Eustáquio Alves has another theory. He says he believes the Chinese will be able to cushion the impact of population reduction through technological innovations and, in the short term, may even increase productivity rates. “At this point, there are only two solutions. The first is openness to immigration, which the Chinese government says it is not ready to give up. The other is to invest in skills and technology. Perhaps we will discover in a few decades that this fall has not only affected economic growth, but may even have a positive effect on the environment, ”he projects optimistically.
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