China’s ruling Communist Party is facing a national emergency. To fix it, the party wants more women to have more babies.
It has offered them sweeteners, like cheaper housing, tax benefits and cash. It has also invoked patriotism, calling on them to be “good wives and mothers.”
The efforts aren’t working. Chinese women have been shunning marriage and babies at such a rapid pace that China’s population in 2023 shrank for the second straight year, accelerating 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 year in a row that the number has fallen. Taken together with the number of people who died during the year — 11.1 million — China has more older people than anywhere else in the world, an amount that is rising rapidly. China’s total population was 1,409,670,000 at the end of 2023, a decline of two million people, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
The shrinking and aging population worries Beijing because it is draining China of the working-age people it needs to power the economy. The demographic crisis, which arrived sooner than nearly anyone expected, is already straining weak and underfunded health care and pension systems.
China hastened the problem with its one-child policy, which helped to push the birthrate down over several decades. The rule also created generations of young only-child girls who were given an education and employment opportunities — a cohort that turned into empowered women who now view Beijing’s efforts as pushing them back into the home.
Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, has long talked about the need for women to return to more traditional roles in the home. He recently urged government officials to promote a “marriage and childbearing culture,” and to influence what young people think about “love and marriage, fertility and family.”
But experts said the efforts lacked any attempt to address one reality that shaped women’s views about parenting: deep-seated gender inequality. The laws that are meant to protect women and their property, and to ensure they are treated equally, have failed them.
“Women still don’t feel sure enough to have children in our country,” said Rashelle Chen, a social media professional from the southern province of Guangdong. Ms. Chen, 33, has been married for five years and said she didn’t intend to have a baby.
“It seems that the government’s birth policy is only aimed at making babies but doesn’t protect the person who gives birth,” she said. “It does not protect the rights and interests of women.”
Propaganda campaigns and state-sponsored dating events goad young people to get married and have babies. In China, it is uncommon for unmarried couples or a single person to have children. State media is filled with calls for China’s youths to play a role in “rejuvenating the nation.”
The message has been received by parents, many of whom already share traditional views about marriage. Ms. Chen’s parents sometimes get so upset at her decision not to have children that they cry on the phone. “We are no longer your parents,” they tell her.
Women in China today have a better awareness of their rights because of the rise in advocacy against sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. The authorities have tried to silence China’s feminist movement, but its ideas about equality remain widespread.
“During these past 10 years, there is a huge community of feminists that have been built up through the internet,” said Zheng Churan, a Chinese women’s rights activist, who was detained with four other activists on the eve of International Women’s Day in 2015. “Women are more empowered today,” Ms. Zheng said.
Censorship has silenced much of the debate around women’s issues, sometimes tamping down on public discussion of sexual discrimination, harassment or gender violence. Yet women have been able to share their experiences online and provide support to the victims, Ms. Zheng said.
On paper, China has laws to promote gender equality. Employment discrimination based on gender, race or ethnicity is illegal, for example. In practice, companies advertise for male candidates and discriminate against female employees, said Guo Jing, an activist who has helped to provide legal support to women facing discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.
“In some ways, women are more aware of gender inequality in every area of life,” Ms. Guo said. “It’s still difficult for women to get justice, even in court.” In 2014, she sued a state-owned company, Dongfang Cooking Training School, after she was told not to apply for a job because she was a woman. She prevailed, but was awarded only about $300 in compensation.
A recent uptick in shocking social media postings and news articles about acts of violence against women has grabbed the attention of the nation, like the savage 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 a shack.
Women often cite such violent acts when discussing why they don’t want to get married. Changes to policies and regulations, like a new rule requiring a 30-day cooling-off period before civil divorces can be made final, are another. Marriage rates have been falling for nine years. That trend, once limited mostly to cities, has spread to rural areas as well, according to government statistics.
Another reason women say they don’t want to get married is that it has gotten harder to win a divorce in court if it is contested.
An analysis of nearly 150,000 court rulings on divorce cases by Ethan Michelson, a professor at Indiana University, found that around 80 percent of the petitions filed by women were denied by a judge on the first try, often when there was evidence of domestic violence. (The rate of denial for a second try is around 70 percent.)
“There have been so many strong signals from the very top, from Xi’s own mouth, about family being the bedrock of Chinese society and family stability being the foundation of social stability and national development,” Mr. Michelson said. “There is no doubt that these signals have reinforced judges’ tendencies,” he said.
Popular sayings online — such as “a marriage license has become a license to beat,” or worse — are reinforced 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 abuse; a judge said the couple needed to stay together for their children. Another woman in the southern city of Guangzhou was murdered by her husband during a 30-day divorce cooling-off period.
In 2011, a Supreme People’s Court ruled that family homes would no longer be divided in divorce, but instead given to the person whose name was on the deed — a finding that favored men.
“That decision really frightened a lot of women in China,” said Leta Hong Fincher, the author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.”
That sense of panic has not gone away.
“Instead of having more care and protection, mothers become more vulnerable to abuse and isolation,” said Elgar Yang, 24, a journalist in Shanghai.
Policies by the government that are meant to entice women to marry, she added, “even make me feel that it is a trap.”