The Financial Times this week reported that China’s seventh national census would show the country’s population declined for the first time in decades. The government bureau responsible for the census then claimed China’s population increased in 2020—but has yet to publish the report, which was originally set to be released in early April. Total population numbers aside, the report is expected to show a significant decrease in China’s birth rate. Only 100,368 children were born in Beijing in 2020, compared with 132,634 in 2019, a drop off of 32,266 births. The aggregate numbers hide the extent of the problem: China’s gender ratio is 112 boys per 100 girls. This startling imbalance is largely the result of sex-selective abortion and other practices under the one-child policy, which was revised in 2015.
The general decline in fertility is not simply a casualty of the pandemic, but also a reflection of women’s categorical rejection of government efforts to persuade them to marry and have children—for example, a new divorce “cooling-off period” that endangers women caught in abusive relationships. Some Chinese feminists have adopted a South Korean tactic known as 6B4T which rejects heterosexual marriage and procreation. “6B4T is a passive way of resistance and self-protection under the current gender equality situation in East Asia,” a young Guangdong woman told VICE. Earlier this month, authorities targeted 6B4T adherents in a crackdown on feminist Douban groups that met with netizen resistance. Elsewhere on social media, “trolls” have targeted feminists for harassment as Weibo’s CEO egged them on.
This served as the background for the publication of a recent report on human trafficking in China which led to an online maelstrom. A Weibo account for China News Service, the second-largest state owned news agency in China, shared the report with a hashtag taken from the text: “Eliminate Backward Concepts Like ‘Men Are Superior To Women’ and ‘Beget Male Heirs To Carry On The Ancestral Lineage.’” In response, some online commenters argued that the hashtag and state media comment underscore the lack of progress on gender rights since the 1949 founding of the PRC. CDT Chinese editors collected a number of comments from across the web, a selection of which have been translated here:
0THIRD01：As soon as they want access to your uterus, they start sweet-talking you. Bear in mind that the divorce “cool-off period” started not so long ago!!
丫丫酱团纸：Back in the year I graduated, even the PSB’s campus recruiting material didn’t dare openly write “we only recruit males”—at most they only hinted that they don’t recruit women. But in recent years? All sorts of classifieds openly write “we only recruit males.” Gender discrimination will soon become the national norm. But now they’re once again thinking about gender equality, could it be that the 7th Census has given them a slap in the face?
十里酒街: When I was little my parents favored boys over girls. It’s shadowed my entire life.
朱小姐不爱吃鱼虾: How will you eliminate the mindset that “men are superior to women”? Can an ideology thousands of years old be erased so easily? It’s practically carved into Chinese peoples’ bones. Better to address the difficulty women have getting hired first. If two years after graduation you want to change jobs, the first thing they’ll ask you is, “Do you have a boyfriend? When do you plan to get married?” If you’re already married but don’t have kids, they won’t hire you. If you have one, they’ll ask if you plan to have a second. If you don’t plan for a second, they’ll want to see the receipt payment for an IUD as proof of your commitment.
Chan-_–Chan: Is there equal pay for equal work? Equal opportunity and equal employment? Could the divorce “cool-down period” be binned first?
我在苏菲的信箱里: Women’s position in China is the best in the world, China News Service is a hostile foreign force. [Chinese]
Other archived comments show netizens highlighting the fact that the call for gender equality was first sounded long ago by sharing historical factoids, or lampooning the anachronism with cartoons：
-叮当叮叮当：HAHA almost a hundred years have already passed:
[Translated from screenshot:] In June 1923, the Third National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in Guangzhou. A bill drafted by Xiang Jingyu and passed at the Congress, “The Resolution on The Women’s Movement,” clearly stated: “Women should have inheritance rights,” “Freedom of relations between men and women,” “Marriage and divorce freedom,” “Equal pay across genders,” “Protections for mothers,” “Subsidies for women laborer comrades,” “Equal education across genders,” “Equal employment across genders,” and a number of other regulations related to equal gender rights and the protection of women’s rights. The bill also proposed a National Alliance for the Women’s Movement. Xiang Jingyu was elected to the Central Committee and became the first Party Secretary of the Women’s Movement. [Chinese]
Leta Hong Fincher wrote this week’s Politico China Watcher newsletter on China’s feminists and the state’s attempt to increase fertility:
In his International Women’s Day address this year, Xi emphasized the importance of women’s reproductive function. “Without women, there would be no continuity of the human race,” he said. But a critical mass of women are rejecting the state’s relentless promotion of marriage and child rearing, The Wall Street Journal reported.
[…] Women who had previously avoided political discussion now decided to identify themselves publicly as feminists on social media, forcing the government’s internet censors to work even more aggressively to shut down new feminist content. In January 2018, thousands of students and alumni in China signed #MeToo petitions at dozens of universities across China, demanding action against sexual harassment. Many of the petitions were deleted by censors soon after being posted, but users came up with ideas to evade the censorship, including the use of emojis for “rice” (mi) and “rabbit” (tu) to make the hashtag #RiceBunny — which sounds like “Me Too” in Mandarin.
[…] Although Chinese feminist activists eschew the appearance of overt political opposition, their underlying message is radical. By mobilizing women to break free of China’s patriarchal institutions of compulsory marriage and child rearing, feminists are sabotaging the government’s fundamental objectives of ensuring that “high-quality,” Han Chinese women remain baby breeders and docile guarantors of political stability. [Source]
See also CDT’s 2019 interview with Leta Hong Fincher. For further reading, turn to digital news magazine Wainao’s collection of interviews and articles on Chinese feminism in the 2010s, “the erased decade” in the magazine’s terms.