This week, an estimated 200mn unmarried Chinese returned home to celebrate the lunar new year, arriving at houses filled with the aromas of steaming dumplings and fish and greeted by relatives brimming with questions about when they plan to get married 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 coaching people on how to bat away pushy parents.
“Everyone has their own technique,” said a Beijing teacher in her late 20s, who has been keeping her boyfriend a secret from her family for years as a pre-emptive strategy against demands for marriage.
Young Chinese have for decades invented creative tactics to allay parental demands for marriage and grandchildren, put off by the exorbitant costs of modern child rearing while juggling taxing jobs and sky-high property prices in large cities.
The fight to get Chinese youngsters married and producing babies is moving from the family home into the political arena as the world’s most populous country enters a long-term and irreversible population decline.
Last week, Chinese authorities announced that a long-anticipated turning point had finally been reached: the population officially shrank in 2022 for the first time in 60 years, losing 850,000 people as deaths outstripped births.
China’s demographic outlook is seen to darken further, as a rapidly aging population is supported by an ever smaller number of taxpaying workers funding a strained social welfare and hospital system, which Beijing’s dramatic reversal of anti-coronavirus restrictions last month revealed to already be in a fragile state.
In response, local governments have started providing subsidies to families with more than one child. Others are also adopting more creative tactics. Ningling county, in the central province of Henan, assumed the role of matchmaker in late December, sponsoring a speed dating event in which masked-up singletons gathered in the cold with numbers pinned to their winter coats.
But experts are pessimistic that the government’s efforts to lift the birth rate will be more effective than those of parents.
“So far, nothing seems to have stuck,” said Wang Feng, a sociologist and expert in demographics at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s easy for the government to write new slogans, but it’s quite another to change the work and life environment of young people.”
In 2016, Beijing scrapped the nearly four-decade one-child limit, the world’s most severe population policy, and in 2021 went as far as to encourage couples to have up to three children. But the expected baby boom never materialized — after initially rising in the first year, the number of infants in China has fallen every year thereafter.
That decline accelerated during the pandemic as many Chinese delayed or decided against having children, with the health crisis and economic instability wrought by zero-Covid restrictions weighing on couples. Henan’s birth rate, a measurement of the number of births per thousand people, plummeted nearly 30 per cent from 2019 to 2021.
Young people who do get married are doing so later, while the total pool of China’s marriageable youth continues to shrink annually. The number of women of childbearing age, defined as those between 15 and 49 years old, fell by more than 4mn last year, a legacy of the one-child policy.
Lü Pin, a Chinese feminist activist in New York, said government initiatives to encourage marriage had been “ineffective” because they did not tackle the “real reason young people don’t want to have children”, which has cultural and economic roots.
“Young people no longer see giving birth as an inevitability,” she said, pointing to changing social and professional goals among China’s youth. “They no longer feel bound by traditions of raising children.”
Rising youth unemployment, soaring prices for housing and education in major cities and the looming healthcare costs of caring for the aging relatives who outnumber them have created a powerful disincentive for young Chinese to start families.
One Beijing resident in her 20s said she had begun responding to relatives’ inquiries by asking if matrimony was “a cult of people who want to grab more people into the institution once they get married”.
Another tactic promoted in online videos is for women to undergo a human papillomavirus vaccination course, which requires three shots over 18 months, during which time they are advised against becoming pregnant.
Lü predicted that young people would continue to shun official attempts to boost fertility, despite the pressure. “They don’t want to be a birthing tool for the country,” she said.
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu in Beijing