Frustrated by his inability to counter China’s rapidly declining birthrate, dictator Xi Jinping abandoned his rhetorical commitment to “gender equality” at a meeting with the All-China Women’s Federation and told women to start getting married and having babies to secure China’s future.
“It is necessary to guide women to play their unique role in carrying forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation and establishing good family virtues to create a new trend of family civilization,” Xi said at the meeting in early November.
“Only with harmonious families, good family education, and correct family traditions can children be raised and society develop in a healthy manner,” he contended.
Xi said his regime would “actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and child-bearing,” including more enthusiastic “guidance” for young people who do not grasp that marrying young and raising large families is part of their duty to the nation.
To that end, Xi said the Chinese Communist Party will seek to “organize and motivate women to contribute their strength to Chinese modernization,” by which he meant motivating them to give birth to the generation that will do the modernizing.
China’s state-run CGTN news service said Xi gave women’s groups credit for their contributions to “building a moderately prosperous society in all respects, poverty alleviation, combating the COVID-19 epidemic, technological innovation and rural revitalization.”
Xi additionally stressed the importance of “following a socialist path with Chinese characteristics for women’s development.”
Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Thursday said Xi’s remarks have drawn more attention over the past few weeks, as it became clear he was serious about mixing patriotism, nationalism, and Communist loyalty into his appeal for Chinese women to take marriage more seriously and have more children.
Unfortunately for Xi, his more strident appeal does not seem to be working:
The number of Chinese couples tying the knot for the first time has plummeted by nearly 56% over the past nine years, the financial magazine Yicai quoted the 2023 China Statistical Yearbook as saying, with such marriages numbering less than 11 million in 2022.
Young people are increasingly avoiding marriage, having children and buying a home amid a tanking economy and rampant youth unemployment, part of an emerging social phenomenon known as the “young refuseniks” – people who reject the traditional four-fold path to adulthood: finding a mate, marriage, mortgages and raising a family.
A recent poll on the social media platform Weibo found that while most of the 44,000 respondents said 25-28 is the best age to marry, nearly 60% said they were delaying marriage due to work pressures, education or the need to buy property.
RFA quoted a young Chinese woman studying in Georgetown who said her generation was already inclined to delay marriage and family in favor of developing their careers, and Xi’s manic coronavirus lockdown sealed the deal by making self-reliance seem even more important to Chinese women.
“Rather than making how you feel dependent on another person, it’s better to focus on what you want to do,” she said.
RFA noted Xi’s current Politburo is “the first in decades not to include a single woman,” a detail that might make his appeal for the “political mobilization” of their wombs seem even less appealing to his female subjects.
Furthermore, for all his talk about gender equality under socialism, Xi’s China has fallen from 69th to 107th place on the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Gender Gap Report. The regime has lately been cracking down on women’s rights activists, accusing them of seeking to “subvert state power.”
The Chinese Communist Party is evidently fearful that women’s rights activists might find common cause with other movements it sees as threats, such as the Uyghurs and pro-democracy activists. Also, as the Peng Shuai outrage demonstrated, the old men who hold power in the Communist Party are not going to let themselves be indicted or embarrassed by #MeToo activists.
Xi’s fresh encouragement for women to embrace traditional wife and mother roles may not be welcomed by Chinese women who feel their country is already moving backward — and not just because they resent Xi’s cavalier political rhetoric.
Activists who spoke to RFA noted that Chinese women have serious reasons to fear being edged out of the shrinking market for good jobs, so they want to signal prospective employers that they are absolutely devoted to their careers and will not require time off for maternity leave or raising children.
Fortune cited research last month that found female Chinese managers are more likely to pass over female job applicants because they are more conscious of how much time marriage and maternity can take away from a career and more skeptical of pledges from young women that they will remain wholly devoted to their jobs.
New York City University political science professor Xia Ming feared Xi’s regime might decide to solve that problem by “removing women from the labor market entirely.” It might make sense to an authoritarian government that if too many women are putting off their maternal duties to pursue career ambitions, the answer is to crush their ambitions.
Writing at the Hill last month, redoubtable China critic Gordon Chang said the Chinese Communist Party “panicked” after the “unexpected” results of a recent poll that found women are increasingly less interested in marrying young and having children.
Chang thought Xi’s remarks about cultivating “a new culture of marriage and child-bearing” were not meant as idle ruminations or even polite suggestions. He warned it was not difficult to believe the tyranny that once forced women to have abortions might start forcing them to bear children.
“We already know how communist pro-natalism works. Xi already has the intrusive family planning apparatus to apply coercive tactics like heavy fines, harassment and monitoring women’s pregnancies until birth. If overburdened Chinese parents cannot cope, Xi has orphanages to raise abandoned children,” Susan Yoshihara of the American Council on Women, Peace, and Security told Chang.
Nothing China has done to persuade women to have more babies has worked very well, including dramatic efforts to reduce the cost of marriage and children, such as some Chinese provinces cracking down on extravagant weddings and expensive betrothal gifts. Xi is running out of carrots to entice young women into motherhood. He will soon be tempted to turn to sticks.