China’s shrinking population may lead to xenophobia, threaten CCP’s hold on power: Geeta Kochhar

Down To Earth speaks to China expert from JNU on the latest population figures  

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 20 January 2023

Photo: iStockPhoto: iStock

The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics on January 17, 2023 confirmed the country’s population had shrunk for the first time since the famine caused by Chairman Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in 1959-1961.

The population will continue to shrink in the coming years, according to the official demographers. What impact will this have on China, the world’s most populous country as of now (India will overtake it this year)?

What led to the population to shrink? Down To Earth had an in-depth conversation with Geeta Kochhar, assistant professor, Center for Chinese and South-East Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Kochhar’s main research interests include urbanisation and development processes in China, spatial restructuring and demographic changes in China.

She said the shrinking population would have far-reaching impacts on China including the spectre of economic decline and xenophobia, all of which would challenge the strangle hold of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: How did the ‘One Child Policy’ impact Chinese society as far as family structure was concerned? Has the Chinese joint family system largely broken down?


Geeta Kochhar: China is like India as far as the joint family system is concerned. Usually, four generations stay (or used to stay) together in one house.

There definitely has been a breakdown in this structure since the ‘One Child Policy’ was introduced in the 1980s. It is now like an inverted pyramid consisting of four grandparents, two parents and a child.

These children have to take care of their elders and the pressure of that responsibility is immense. At the same time, these children are brought up as ‘Little Emperors’ as they are called locally, in the sense that they are pampered by the whole family.

The ‘One Child Policy’ happened at the same time as China opened up to the outside world due to the reforms brought about by Deng Xiaoping.

There were a lot of job opportunities in the urban areas as well as in industries. Consequently, rural-to-urban migration happened on a huge scale. This phenomenon also impacted the traditional Chinese family structure.

RG: What is the usual makeup of a Chinese family like today?

GK: As I said earlier, it usually consists of the grandparents, maternal as well as paternal, the parents and a child.

I would like to stress here that the ‘One Child Policy’ was usually targeted at the Han, the dominant ethnic group in China. Minority nationalities were allowed to have two to three children.

But even among the Han, the policy and its rules were rigidly imposed in urban areas, not so much in rural ones. Since a lot of migration was taking place, many rural families were moving either en masse or individually to urban areas. But they were not assimilated properly there.

Before the One Child Policy was ended by the Chinese government in 2015, many families came to have what were called as ‘unregistered children’. Several couples wanted to have a second child. But the Policy prevented that, at least in urban areas.

So one child, usually not registered on the official record, stayed in the village with the grandparents while another stayed in the city with the parents.

This was especially true for people from the coastal province of Zhejiang. Several had 2-3 children. They also migrated in large numbers to Beijing where several colonies sprang up.

These people did not mind paying penalties for going against the law. They also did not expect to be the beneficiaries of social welfare schemes since they were not in authorised government jobs in urban areas.

Since they were migrant labour, they could also have an unregistered child and not expect to get benefits from the government.

Those who were employed in government or even private sector jobs in urban areas, had hukou which are somewhat similar to ration cards in India. Important demographic data such as marital status, registering of children born to a family as well as census details are usually noted in a hukou.

But since families had children on the sly, many of them were not recorded. This was not usually the case with those having rural hukou.

RG: What has become of the so-called ‘Bare Branches’ generation?

GK: There are certain villages where this phenomenon (men not being able to find partners due to a skewed sex ratio resulting from Chinese families having only single male children) is seen. But they are very few.

Yes, Chinese society has traditionally had a preference for male children. But the trend in urban areas today is the other way round.

This is because in China, a bride price is usually paid rather than a dowry. Also, brides today expect their grooms to have homes, cars and other amenities. That has also impacted the notion about whether one wants to have a female child or not.

Thus, families today are quite happy to have a girl child.

RG: Has China’s population always been high, say since the time of Qin Shi Huang?

GK: It depends on how one defines China. I don’t think its population was always very high. The boom that we see starts from Chairman Mao Zedong’s time. In 1958, when he started the Great Leap Forward, Mao stated that ‘more hands meant more labour’. Hence, there was this rush to have children.  

RG: Are non-Han ethnic groups in the country also seeing a decline in numbers?

GK: Yes. China today is a much more materialistic society which has impacted the thinking of all people, regardless of ethnic differences or whether they live in urban or rural areas.

There was this notion in China called ‘The Three Mountains Burden’, the burden of education, health and employment. Many people in the country did not (and do not) wish to have children given the huge investment and effort involved in raising a child.

Maybe this notion has not caught on yet among the Uyghur of Xinjiang. But you see that happening in Tibet. Many Tibetans are married to Han people and consequently, trends in Han society are finding their way among Tibetans too.  

RG: What further changes do you see in Chinese society as the population continues to shrink?

GK: A number of changes have been taking place in China over the past few years. One is the rise in the number of elderly people.

This number is expected to increase further in the next 5-10 years and will bring with it the associated problems of how to provide caregiving to such a huge number of old people.

The economy will be affected too. China’s economic success from the 1980s onwards till the 2000s was as a result of surplus and cheap labour as I have mentioned.

But now, since the population has begun to shrink, the number of elderly people is on the rise and that of working age individuals is on the decline, the economy is bound to bear the impact.

This has already happened in several areas. A decade ago, there were labour shortages in Guangdong. This was because fewer working age adults were migrating to urban centres. Also, rural areas were modernising. There was thus no need to migrate.

Even if labour is available, it may not necessarily be skilled. Such unskilled labour will not be able to cope up with the industrialisation 2.0 that is happening in China which is the mechanisation of work.

Also, notions of individualism, materialism and self-centredness will rise.

Traditional Chinese society, like in India, was community-based. Community was the basis of social life in the country, something that the CCP pushed.

That will now be impacted. When one has to take care of their own kin given that there are fewer people and the cost of living is sky-high, community responsibilities suffer.

Because of the rising imbalance between the Han and other nationalities, there will be an increase in xenophobia and the fear of the Other. That will create a dent on the CCP.

Minorities such as the Uyghur, the Tibetans and the Mongols will demand greater autonomy and amenities. This will, in turn, prompt a backlash from the Han who will see this as a threat to their privileges. And the CCP will feel it.

It will take at least 2-3 decades to see whether the decision to end the One Child Policy was right or not and that too if young people consider dedicating themselves and their families to ‘the Party and the Nation’, which is highly unlikely.

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