On June 15, 2023, Xi Jinping observed his seventieth birthday. 2023 is also the tenth anniversary of his accession to China’s presidency. He is unquestionably the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. He may be even more powerful than Mao, a fact hard to access given the tight control in today’s China.
However, Xi has a problem that threatens the whole edifice of Chinese Communism. China is having a population crisis that is steadily worsening.
National Suicide Pacts
China’s population problems began with its infamous “One Child Policy,” a kind of national suicide pact that lasted from 1979 to 2016.
The impetus behind the policy was simple. Throughout the decades that preceded the policy, China did not have enough food to feed its population.
The government hoped to stimulate food production with its “Great Leap Forward” (1958-1961), “a five-year plan of forced agricultural collectivization and rural industrialization.” The result was a sharp economic contraction and between 30 and 45 million deaths—mostly from starvation. Other contributing factors to the death toll were rural labor camp conditions, executions and suicide to escape the desperate conditions. The “five-year plan” was such a disaster that the government abandoned it two years early.
However, in the communist world, bad ideas never die. In a system where the state presumes to be a combination of god, parent, teacher and employer, government merely move on to the next great idea. Hence, the “ruralization” of the Great Leap Forward became part of the even more disastrous “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976).
Shifting Blame to Children
The failure of these programs neither increased food supply nor controlled population growth. So, in 1979, China instituted the infamous One Child Policy. Parents were required to ask official permission to have that one child. After this child, urban residents and government employees were flatly forbidden to have another. Rural parents who could prove the need for another child’s labor could sometimes get permission to have a second child as long as five years had passed since the birth of the first.
“She already had two children and had gone through four abortions afterward, to avoid paying the ruinously high ‘social maintenance fee’ demanded from families [who violated the] birth limits.
“‘I had already had two children, but my heart just did not feel right.’
“So the mother went into hiding to carry her son to term. One night, family planning officials approached her husband…. He used a pickax to drive them off and was imprisoned for that for half a year.”
Their desperate actions were successful. When the article was written, their son was in the Chinese equivalent of junior high school. But such success stories are rare. Perhaps the only real winners are the roughly 80,000 mostly female children adopted by Americans, although many of them, now adults, are trying desperately to make connections to their natural parents.
A Deteriorating Nation
Even as late as 2008, Pulitzer Prizewinner Thomas Friedman praised China’s population policy in his climate change opus Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. Chapter seventeen is titled “Can Red China Become Green China?” In it, the oft-mistaken New York Times journalist opined that the one-child policy had saved China from “a population catastrophe.” (Mr. Freidman has also argued that free trade with China will make the Asian nation more democratic.)
In 2010, The Weekly Standard promoted a more realistic view of China’s population policy.
“In 1950, China had 550 million people; today it is home to 1.33 billion. According to projections from the United Nations’ Population Division, China’s population will peak at 1.458 billion in 2030. But then it will begin shrinking. By 2050, China will be down to 1.408 billion and losing 20 million people every five years.”
If anything, that prediction did not measure the full extent of the disaster now looming. In February 2023, Fox News reported, “A  United Nations forecast shows China’s population decreasing 100 million by 2050 and 600 million by 2100.”
Desperate and Abrupt Reversal
China finally dropped the One Child Policy in 2016. It now promotes the idea that couples should have three children each. In some areas, officials are installing sculptures of two parents playing with their three children. The government hosts events designed to popularize childbearing. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Officials have given out gifts such as rice cookers and water bottles to women attending events centered on showing that getting married and having children is a good thing.”
The early results of the Chinese charm offensive are not encouraging. In 2022, China’s population fell by 850,000. That same year, Chinese women gave birth to about half the number of babies that they did in 2016—9.6 million vs. 17.9 million. If the 2022 tally is accurate, the birth rate was half the replacement rate.
Unfortunately, China’s trend is an exaggerated version of the world’s attitude against having children. Raising children is difficult and no amount of economic bribes can make it less so—especially to a class of young adults not accustomed to large families. Too many young adults have been trained to see children, even their own, as potential nuisances that limit social life and career trajectories.
The Way to Success that Xi Will Never Take
That is especially true in China. A twenty-five-year-old person today was born in 1998 when the one-child policy was at its height. Their parents knew that another child could bring down intense government scrutiny and economic ruin—and the vast majority lived their lives accordingly.
One cannot turn a child-producing faucet on and off with the flip of a switch. The rewards of having many children presupposes a supporting culture of sacrifice and charity. Most people’s attitudes were hardened through the efforts of the same government now trying to convince them to bear children today. Now that government thinks that it can reverse directions that it promoted for almost forty years. It takes more than rice cookers and statues to convince those who grew up in an anti-child atmosphere to become parents three times over.
The only real solution for the Chinese government is to adopt a pro-children policy found in Church teaching, not economic plans. The Catholic Church teaches that children are products of love—love for God and parents’ love for each other. God gives special graces through the sacrament of marriage that help parents overcome the difficulties associated with raising children. The Church blesses these families and helps them on the path to their sanctification.
China’s sham program to increase the number of children will fail just like its Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. There are mechanical plans that treat people like economic units and not human being endowed with an immortal soul.
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