China has a plan for women: Family, tradition and the culture of motherhood

With no women in the most powerful bodies of the Communist Party, Beijing is seeking to push young people towards marriage, so as to reverse declining birth rates

A bride and groom pose for a photo outside the Temple of Confucius, in Beijing, on September 26, 2023.
A bride and groom pose for a photo outside the Temple of Confucius, in Beijing, on September 26, 2023.Kevin Frayer (Getty Images)
Guillermo Abril

Family, tradition and a culture of motherhood. These are some of the values that Beijing is proposing for the women of today’s China, according to a speech given this past week by President Xi Jinping.

“It’s necessary,” Xi said on Monday, October 30, “to guide women to play their unique role in carrying forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation and establishing good family customs.” The message resonates loudly and clearly in a country that has recently been plagued by a declining birth rate and a rapidly aging population.

“We must actively cultivate a new culture of marriage and childbearing,” Xi affirmed, sitting at a table flanked by the new leadership of the All China Women’s Federation, an organization linked to the Communist Party. Doing a good job in women’s work is not only related to women’s own development, but also related to “family harmony, social harmony, national development and national progress,” the president added. The leader of the Asian giant has put forward a proposal that also involves guiding young people’s vision of “a new trend of family,” according to the transcript released by state media.

The speech took place just after the National Women’s Congress. The convocation of this quinquennial event in the Great Hall of the People left paradoxical images: nearly 1,800 delegates sat in the stalls and stands, but the nucleus of the first row of the stage — the section reserved for the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party — was populated by men, with Xi at the center.

China currently does not have any women in the most powerful bodies of the Communist Party. In the last party congress of this organization, held in 2022, for the first time in a quarter-of-a-century, not a single woman was named among the 24 people who make up the Politburo, the second-most powerful body in the country. Their absence among the seven members of the Standing Committee — the highest body in the hierarchy — was also no surprise, as women have never been included in the small nucleus. Only men over the age of 60 are allowed to sit in it, with 70-year-old President Xi — the oldest of them all — at the top.

The battle for equality still has a long way to go. “The Chinese concept of society and family is deeply sexist,” analyzes a European diplomatic source based in Beijing. “Women have the right to work and, in general, the same rights as men,” she clarifies, “but [their main role] in society is to be mothers.” For this reason, she continues, there’s a shortage of women in very high positions. “It would be incompatible with her family obligations.” In China, she continues, a woman who voluntarily decides not to be a mother isn’t considered to be “trustworthy.”

In China, feminism — and, in general, any civil society movement that challenges the system — is silenced and censored. Women who try to mount awareness campaigns risk being arrested. Protest messages often disappear from social media platforms, which are always under surveillance.

At the end of September, a trial was held against Chinese journalist and #MeToo movement activist Sophia Huang Xueqin and labor activist Wang Jianbing (also a #MeToo supporter), both accused of “inciting the subversion of state power.” Both were arrested in 2021 and face sentences of up to five years in prison. Huang Xueqin had participated in several #MeToo campaigns to provide support and assistance to survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

“Harmonious families”

“Only when families are harmonious, well-educated and have a decent [domestic] culture, can children grow up healthy… [only then] can society develop properly,” Xi Jinping stressed in his speech. The policy research team Trivium China described the address as “bigmansplaining,” adding the prefix “big” to “mansplaining,” given the speaker’s position.

In the official statement from Xi’s previous meeting with the Women’s Federation — back in 2018 — there was no mention of “marriage” or “motherhood.” On the other hand, “equality” between men and women was mentioned up to six times, compared to only two mentions in this year’s official address. This past week, the president also asked the federation to “promote the improvement and application of policies to support birth rates, improve the quality of demographic development and actively confront the aging of the population.”

“Xi Jinping wants Chinese women to have more babies,” summarize the analysts from Trivium in their latest newsletter. “No matter how much Xi asks,” they say, “the birth rate will continue to fall until policymakers offer better paternity [and maternity] leave and more financial aid for the care and education of children.”

“These statements don’t seem to offer any tangible benefits for women or significant progress in promoting gender equality,” laments Zhen, a Chinese woman in her 20s, who confesses how — despite her studies at one of the best universities in the country — she finds it difficult to understand the “true meaning” behind Xi’s speech.

“I have no idea what the ‘path of socialism with Chinese characteristics’ means for women’s development,” she says. “From what I know,” she adds, “the pressure on women to have children is potentially even greater, especially for those working in the Communist Party system, the state-owned enterprises and the government systems.”

Zhen is aware that, for the government, “the resolution of gender conflicts must involve making women conform, instead of addressing real inequalities.” The educational system, furthermore, “tends to reinforce the idea that young women should be selfless and devoted, instead of teaching young men to be better husbands and fathers.”

The decline in births and the aging of society have become central concerns of the Chinese government. The impending demographic crisis is among the political priorities that were set by the Communist Party in 2022. The birth rate has fallen by more than half since 2016, the year after Beijing decided to end the harsh one-child policy, which was devised years ago to limit the population. Nowadays, however, Beijing encourages having two, or even three children. Numerous initiatives have been launched in this respect. But the government still hasn’t found the right formula.

In 2023, China suffered a population decline for the first time since the famines of the late-1950s and early-1960s, ceding its position as the most populous nation on the planet to India. Marriage rates have also collapsed.

This shift responds to multiple factors, such as China’s own development and modernization. As has occurred in other societies, young people have broken with the most traditional values. And there are also monetary reasons for the declining birth rate: it’s very expensive to raise children in China, while the current environment doesn’t seem conducive to reversing the trend. The economy is shaky — it still hasn’t recovered from the pandemic restrictions.

“Most families don’t have more children because it’s expensive,” summarizes the European diplomat consulted for this report. “In fact, two salaries are needed to support one family.”

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