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China’s singles fight family pressure to get married as population declines

Some 200 million unmarried Chinese returned home this week to celebrate the Lunar New Year, arriving at homes filled with the scent of steaming dumplings and fish, and were greeted by relatives overwhelmed with questions about when they planned to marry and start a family.

The annual inquisition is such a predictable part of life for young Chinese that social media channels are filled with viral how-to guides teaching people how to fend off pushy parents.

“Everyone has their own technique,” ​​said a Beijing teacher in her early 20s who kept her boyfriend a secret from her family for years as a preventive strategy against marriage demands.

Young Chinese have for decades devised creative tactics to soften parental demands for marriage and grandchildren, pushing against the exorbitant costs of modern child rearing while manipulating tax work and sky-high real estate prices in big cities.

The fight to get Chinese youth to marry and have children is moving from the family home to the political arena as the world’s most populous country enters a long-term and irreversible population decline.

Chinese authorities announced last week that the long-awaited turning point had finally been reached: the population officially declined in 2022 for the first time in 60 years, losing 850,000 as deaths outstripped births.

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China’s demographic outlook will worsen further as a rapidly aging population is supported by fewer taxpayers funding an overburdened welfare system and hospitals, which, as Beijing’s abrupt lifting of anti-coronavirus restrictions last month, is already in crisis. fragile condition.

In response, local authorities began to provide subsidies to families with many children. Others also use more creative tactics. Ningling County in central Henan Province took on the role of matchmaker in late December by sponsoring a speed dating event in which lonely people wearing masks gathered in the freezing cold with numbers pinned to their winter coats.

But experts are pessimistic that the government’s efforts to raise the birth rate will be more effective than the efforts of parents.

“Nothing seems to be stuck yet,” said Wang Feng, a sociologist and demographics expert at the University of California, Irvine. “It is easy for the government to write new slogans, but it is quite another thing to change the working and living conditions of young people.”

In 2016, Beijing lifted its nearly four-decade-long per-child limit, the world’s most restrictive population policy, and in 2021 went so far as to encourage couples to have up to three children. But the anticipated baby boom never happened – after an initial rise in the first year, the number of babies in China has fallen annually since then.

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That decline has accelerated during the pandemic as many Chinese have postponed or abandoned childbearing as the health crisis and economic instability brought on by Covid-free restrictions hit couples. The birth rate in Henan province, measured by the number of births per thousand people, fell by almost 30 percent from 2019 to 2021.

Young people who marry do so later, while China’s total marriageable youth continues to decline each year. The number of women of childbearing age, defined as women aged 15 to 49, fell by more than 4 million last year as a result of the one-child policy.

Lu Ping, a New York-based Chinese feminist activist, said government initiatives to encourage marriage were “ineffective” because they did not address “the real reason young people don’t want children,” which has cultural and economic roots.

“Young people no longer see childbirth as inevitable,” she said, pointing to changing social and professional goals among China’s youth. “They no longer feel bound by the traditions of parenting.”

Rising youth unemployment, skyrocketing housing and education prices in major cities, and looming health care costs associated with caring for outnumbered elderly relatives have created a powerful deterrent to young Chinese starting families.

One Beijing resident in her 20s said she began responding to inquiries from relatives asking if matrimony was “a cult of people who want to attract more people to the institution as soon as they get married.”

Another tactic promoted in the online video is for women to complete the HPV vaccination course, which requires three shots over an 18-month period during which they are advised not to become pregnant.

Lü predicted that young people would continue to avoid official attempts to raise the birth rate despite the pressure. “They don’t want to be a birthing tool for the country,” she said.

Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing

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