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  • China’s Birthrate Hits Record Low, Sharpening Economic Concerns

  • China Announces New Changes on “Original Sin” of Residency Controls

  • HRW Report: China an Increasing “Global Threat to Human Rights”


Photo: The Writer, by Gauthier DELECROIX – 郭天

The Writer, by Gauthier DELECROIX – 郭天 (CC BY 2.0)

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China’s Birthrate Hits Record Low, Sharpening Economic Concerns

In 2015, the Chinese government reformed its infamous “one-child policy” to allow two births for most couples, hoping that it would address a looming demographic crisis by boosting the nation’s birthrate. However, a major birth boom did not follow, due in part to many of China’s educated urban elite considering the rising costs of living an obstacle to raising a second child. In 2018, the omission of all references to “family planning” in the draft civil code hinted that birth restrictions may be dropped entirely. According to official statistics published last week, the 2019 birthrate of 14.6 million babies was the lowest since the 1949 founding of the PRC, a 500,000 drop from the 2018 and the third consecutive annual decline. At The Guardian, Lily Kuo outlines policymakers’ unsuccessful efforts to ward off a demographic crisis in recent years, and relays expert concerns that the falling birthrate reflects wider social and economic crises and is unlikely to turn around soon:

“One can no longer point now to the Chinese government’s restrictive birth control policy as the culprit,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine. “Such a low birthrate shows abundantly clear that it is driven by the strong structural forces, both economic and social, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.”

[…] Demographers said China’s population would begin to shrink in the next decade and by 2050 people over the age of 60 would account for a third of the population. That would strain public services as well as their children, many of them only children, who would bear the brunt of caring for their elderly parents.

Experts say such a low birthrate does not bode well for the future.

“China has long joined the large number of countries in the world with very low fertility,” said Wang. “It needs now to learn the lessons and experiences from other countries to formulate long-term measures and reforms to make the society more family friendly.” [Source]

More from Issaku Harada at the Nikkei Asian Review:

The fall in the birthrate is likely to accelerate as the number of young women of childbearing age is expected to drop sharply.

Meanwhile, the population is aging due to greater longevity. According to the announcement on Friday, the number of people over age 65 reached 12.6% of the total population at the end of 2019, 0.7 percentage point up from the previous year.

The birthrate decline and aging place an extra burden on the nation’s finances and social security benefits such as healthcare and pensions.

Each province in China has its own pension program, but some regions have already run out of pension reserves.

The total population of the country reached 1,400,050,000 at the end of 2019, surpassing 1.4 billion as births exceeded deaths. [Source]

As China’s aging population is projected to become a major peril to China’s economy—which saw its slowest growth rate in nearly three decades last quarter—The Wall Street Journal’s Chao Deng looks at how economic factors have contributed to the falling birthrate:

Chinese women are having fewer babies as cultural expectations shift and the financial burden of living in cities skyrockets. They are becoming more educated and forming different views on career and marriage, with some putting off childbearing until later, or not having children at all.

China’s social-welfare system lags behind that of rich nations, leaving parents with greater responsibility for child care and education. Discrimination in the workplace over pay and recruitment can also discourage women from having children.

Views on childbearing are especially stark in big cities. Kang Juan, a 41-year-old editor of a financial publication in Beijing, has decided that a child would create an unnecessary burden. “I won’t have children unless there is an unplanned pregnancy,” said Ms. Kang, who is single.

Ms. Kang said she saw many of her female colleagues forced to accept lower salaries after having children. “Having children will definitely hinder your career development in China,” she said. [Source]

At The Guardian, Emma Graham Harrison notes that systemic discrimination and years of family planning propaganda have also been a hindrance to the government’s recent push for more babies:

Single daughters have grown up in a system that taught whole families that limiting family size was a path to happiness, prosperity and social mobility.

Now they work in an environment where women are penalised for their gender even before their first day on the job. Pregnancy and motherhood bring another level of discrimination for many.

That combination of deeply sexist constraints and years of propaganda have proven powerfully effective as contraceptives for many women.

[…] Its push for a higher birthrate is within highly constricted boundaries. The government wants more babies, but only the ones that it considers the right kind of babies, born into a traditional marriage of a man and a woman.

Single mothers face fines or obstacles to accessing social services for their children. One woman has been suing just for the right to freeze her eggs. With same-sex marriage not legal, gay and lesbian couples struggle to become parents. [Source]

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China Announces New Changes on “Original Sin” of Residency Controls

Bloomberg’s Sharon Chen and Dandan Li provide an overview of recent changes to China’s hukou residency permit system, which for decades has tightly controlled citizens’ rights to settle and receive public services away from their registered home areas.

President Xi Jinping has made overhauling the hukou a key policy goal and even argued for abolishing it altogether in his doctoral thesis almost two decades ago. A policy statement issued on Dec. 25 by the State Council, China’s cabinet, included a pledge to eliminate the registration system in cities with fewer than 3 million residents and relax it in cities with populations of 3 million to 5 million. For larger cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, the household registration system will be simplified, it said, without giving details. These guidelines echo those published by the National Development and Reform Commission in April.

“This is by far the boldest and the most significant move to remove the institutional barrier responsible for maintaining the two classes of citizens within the same country, the most consequential original sin created during China’s socialist planned economy era,” wrote Wang Feng, a sociology professor at the University of California at Irvine who’s studied China’s urbanization for decades, in an exchange on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app. “Such a move will no doubt increase labor mobility, usher in new economic dynamism, and reduce a type of social inequality that has plagued China for over half of a century.”

[…] In theory the new policy would effectively remove barriers to receiving the hukou across much of China. Out of almost 300 prefecture-level cities, only 27 have populations exceeding 3 million, according to I-City Media, which analyzed data from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. The pace of change, however, will ultimately be dictated by authorities in individual municipalities, many of which either lack the resources to expand public services to support larger populations or aren’t inclined to make the necessary investments. “The central government has adopted loosening of the policy without providing financial support, so the local governments don’t have strong incentive to carry out the reform,” says Lu Jiehua, a sociology professor at Peking University and one of China’s leading demographers. [Source]

At Reuters this week, David Kirton reported on changes in two key regions:

China’s southern province of Guangdong will relax the household registration system that restrains internal migration in all its cities except the powerhouses of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the provincial governor Ma Xingrui announced on Tuesday.

The move is part of the provincial government’s effort to "accelerate the promotion of new urbanization" and improve county-level economies, Ma said while delivering the province’s annual work report.

[…] Guangdong is China’s most populous province, with 113.5 million people in 2018, according to the provincial bureau of statistics. It has six cities with under 3 million people and three in the 3 to 5 million range.

[…] Shandong, China’s second-most populous province, will also follow suit in easing the household restrictions for smaller cities, according to local media reports of a provincial housing conference held in Jinan last week. [Source]

Fordham Law School’s Carl Minzner sounded a skeptical note about the latest changes on Twitter last month, and again last week:

Change has long been advocated on social justice grounds. The system’s critics include sociologist Yu Jianrong, whose own childhood was marked by punitive hukou cancelation, and young Marxist activist Yue Xin, who emphasized her Beijing hukou as an example of "the original sin of the structural injustices of this whole society." At The Diplomat in November, China Channel’s Bonnie Girard described the inequalities produced and reinforced by a system which "determines one’s possibilities and probabilities in China over the course of an entire lifetime."

As with unapproved immigration around the world, the issue is multilayered. Simply put, many of the cities in China to which provincial cousins migrate could not grow or maintain their development without the cheaper labor that internal illegal immigration brings. Shanghai’s nouveau riche are served by another class of people who have no legal right to live in their city, but whose service and labor form the foundation for development.

[…] But people like Mr. Zhang from Chongqing, who has been working as a driver in Shanghai for 20 years, can never enjoy the conditions needed for even a Shanghai resident card, much less a hukou.

[…] So Zhang’s family stays “home,” like tens of millions of other rural families in China. For two decades, Zhang’s wife and child have lived 1,500 kilometers away. He travels back to see them twice a year.

[…] The system, not surprisingly, underscores and exacerbates social class divisions.

A study made by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that one-third of urban dwellers in Shanghai don’t want to live next door to a migrant from the country. That figure rises to two-thirds in some less cosmopolitan cities. [Source]

While the hukou system’s impact falls most widely and heavily on the poor "low-end population" like the tens of thousands evicted from Beijing in the winter of 2017, it also hits more privileged internal migrants, as The Economist’s Chaguan noted last month:

Two chinas collided on a summer night in Beijing this year when “Little Zhang”, a high-flying young businessman, was summoned for questioning by an elderly neighbour at his housing complex, and asked to prove that he is a legal resident of the city. In the new China where Mr Zhang spends most of his days—a swaggering country rushing to become a high-tech superpower—the 31-year-old is a model citizen. He recently secured a job with a prestigious technology company, buoyed by a master’s degree from a Western university and a stint with a foreign consultancy. In an older China, a bossy place which issues old men and women with red armbands and tasks them to sit outside apartment blocks, snooping on all who pass, he is an object of suspicion.

Despite Mr Zhang’s enviable job, he is legally an outsider in his new home of Haidian, a district in Beijing’s north-west where technology firms have sprung up near elite universities. Born in the neighbouring province of Hebei, Mr Zhang belongs to a tribe of white-collar migrants who call themselves, with mock-defiant pride, Beipiao, or Beijing drifters. […]

[…] Beijing’s trouble retaining talent raises a question that applies to China more generally: namely, are there limits to the flourishing of innovation and creativity in an autocratic, controlling one-party state? Speak to Beijing drifters, and it is not hard to conclude that the answer is yes. The limits of the current system are felt most sharply by the middle tiers of urban society, they say. The rich need not care about hukou because they can secure foreign passports for their children and send them to private international schools in Beijing or overseas. As for low-income migrant workers, they typically leave their children with grandparents back home in villages and townships. It is the aspirational middle that suffers, interviewees say. […] [Source]

Earlier this month, South China Morning Post’s Sidney Leng reported further fuel for caution toward potentially misleading official urban/rural distinctions:

About a third of China’s new urban residents actually lived rural lives, according to a recent study, suggesting Beijing’s claims about the success of its urbanisation programme have been significantly overstated.

The study, carried out by economists from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu and Nankai University in Tianjin, is based on demographic changes to 700,000 communities across the country between 2009 and 2017.

[…] In 2014, Beijing set a goal to “urbanise” 100 million people by 2020, however, the central government is moving towards that goal by simply reclassifying rural areas, meaning that millions of rural dwellers have become urban folk without ever leaving their homes, the researchers found.

The study adds fuel to the debate over the actual rate of urbanisation in China, which the government put at 60 per cent at the end of 2018, with a target of 75 per cent by 2035. [Source]

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HRW Report: China an Increasing “Global Threat to Human Rights”

Human Rights Watch has released their 30th annual “World Report” review of human rights by country. In the introduction to this year’s report, HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote on the global threat to human rights that China’s government poses, warning that if left unchallenged, “Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression.” (HRW examined China’s efforts toward that end in a 2017 report on its interference in U.N. rights mechanisms.) From Roth’s introductory essay:

China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide.

[…] Yet even against this disturbing backdrop [of deteriorating rights situations worldwide], the Chinese government stands out for the reach and influence of its anti-rights efforts. The result for the human rights cause is a “perfect storm”—a powerful centralized state, a coterie of like-minded rulers, a void of leadership among countries that might have stood for human rights, and a disappointing collection of democracies willing to sell the rope that is strangling the system of rights that they purport to uphold.

[…] The motivation for Beijing’s attack on rights stems from the fragility of rule by repression rather than popular consent. Despite decades of impressive economic growth in China, driven by hundreds of millions of people finally emancipated to lift themselves out of poverty, the Chinese Communist Party is running scared of its own people.

Outwardly confident about its success in representing people across the country, the Chinese Communist Party is worried about the consequences of unfettered popular debate and political organization, and thus afraid to subject itself to popular scrutiny.

[…] Many autocrats look with envy at China’s seductive mix of successful economic development, rapid modernization, and a seemingly firm grip on political power. Far from being spurned as a global pariah, the Chinese government is courted the world over, its unelected president receiving red-carpet treatment wherever he goes, and the country hosting prestigious events, such as the 2022 Winter Olympics. The aim is to portray China as open, welcoming, and powerful, even as it descends into ever more ruthless autocratic rule. […] [Source]

Roth was this week barred from entering Hong Kong where he had planned a press conference to launch the annual report, an incident that he wrote “vividly illustrates the problem” that the China section of the report focuses on. Amid ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Beijing has blamed foreign “hostile forces” for fueling unrest, and last month announced undefined “sanctions” on several U.S.-based non-governmental organizations (including HRW) who it said played an “egregious role” in stoking the Hong Kong protests.

More from Human Rights Watch’s press release on the report:

Many people across China, like everywhere else, want the right to live freely and with dignity, Roth said. But President Xi Jinping’s government is overseeing the most brutal and pervasive oppression that China has seen for decades.

Authorities have shut down civic groups, silenced independent journalism, and severely curtailed online conversation. They are seriously encroaching on Hong Kong’s limited freedoms under “one country, two systems.” And in Xinjiang, authorities have built a nightmarish surveillance system to control millions of Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims, arbitrarily detaining 1 million people for forced political indoctrination.

Beijing has made technology central to its repression, Roth said, using mass intrusions on people’s privacy through such tools as forced collection of DNA samples, and then deploying big data analysis and artificial intelligence to refine its means of control. The goal is to engineer a society that is free of dissent.

To avoid global backlash for its crushing repression at home, the Chinese government has significantly increased efforts to undermine the international institutions designed to protect human rights. China intimidates other governments – for example, repeatedly threatening other member states at the United Nations to protect its image and deflect discussion of its abuses. [Source]

The China and Tibet chapter of the report includes a 2019 timeline of events marking rights violations, including the ongoing assault on the Uyghur ethnicity in Xinjiang, authorities restricting freedoms in Hong Kong amid the seven-month-running pro-democracy movement, continued restrictions in Tibetan regions, the furthering of a crackdown on civil society activism, and the rising government development and use of mass surveillance technology.

Reporting on the HRW annual global review, The New York Times’ Austin Ramzy outlines the tactics that Beijing is using to punish and dissuade international criticism:

China wields its international influence at the United Nations, the report said, and has sought to block human rights measures elsewhere out of fear that those tools could be used to examine its own record.

It has also used access to the Chinese market to punish businesses such as the National Basketball Association, the report noted. After the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for Hong Kong protesters, the N.B.A.’s China business partners suspended ties with the league.

And Cathay Pacific Airways, the Hong Kong-based carrier, fired employees who supported the protests after the Chinese government threatened to restrict access to its airspace.

The report also warned of the risk to free expression at universities that take in a growing number of students from China. While some pro-Beijing students have tried to shut down discussion on issues such as Hong Kong, other students from China who are interested in such topics find themselves at risk of retaliation at home, it said. [Source]

Coverage of the report from CNN summarizes the China-focused portions of the report, noting Chinese denials of its allegations at the UN, and statements from HRW on the exacerbated threat of China at a time when some countries that have long signaled commitments to human rights are increasingly unwilling to do so. Amy Woodyatt reports:

During a presentation of the report at the United Nations on Tuesday, Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng denied the allegations contained in it and accused HRW of fabrication.

“The report is full of prejudices and fabrications and ignores the factual information provided by my government. We totally reject the content of this report,” Xing said. “We have been making every effort to advance human rights in China.”

At the UN General Assembly in late October, 23 mostly Western countries came forward to make a strong, official statement criticizing Beijing’s Xinjiang detention centers. In response, Belarus issued a statement claiming 54 countries were in support of the Xinjiang system. Not all signatories were revealed, but a similar statement in July included several Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran.

“An inhospitable terrain for human rights is aiding the Chinese government’s attack,” the organization said in a statement. “A growing number of governments that previously could be relied on at least some of the time to promote human rights in their foreign policy now have leaders, such as United States President Donald Trump, who are unwilling to do so.” [Source]

Also this week, Freedom House released the report “Beijing’s Global Megaphone: The Expansion of Chinese Communist Party Media since 2017,” an examination of the time-tested and new efforts that Beijing is using to influence global news content in its favor. From Freedom House’s press release on the report:

Beijing’s Global Megaphone provides a comprehensive guide to the evolving ways in which CCP media influence extends beyond mainland China—in the form of censorship, propaganda, and control over content-delivery systems. The report presents evidence of the impact this influence is having around the globe, as well as an analysis of the growing pushback it is encountering from governments, media, technology firms, and civil society.

[…] “Chinese state media, government officials, and affiliated companies are achieving increased influence over key nodes in the global information flow, exploiting the more sophisticated technological environment, and showing a readiness to meddle in the internal political debates and electoral contests of other countries,” said [report author and senior China researcher Sarah] Cook. “Governments, journalists, technology companies, and civic activists are responding with initiatives to counter these efforts and protect the free flow of information, and they have scored some victories. Nevertheless, the fact remains that an economically powerful authoritarian state is rapidly expanding its influence over media production and dissemination channels around the world. This has serious implications for the survival of open, democratic societies.” [Source]

Last month the Committee to Protect Journalists named China the world’s leading jailor of journalists, with 48 in prison as of December 1 2019, and the organization released a special report on how China undermines free information in Hong Kong and China (via CDT).

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