Although contradictory, statistics indicate China has a demography problem. The regime will solve it in its usual way, i.e., ignoring individual freedom.
by Marco Respinti
Italian humorist Giovanni Guareschi–a staunch anti-communist journalist and writer–coined a famous sentence to mock Stalinists “Contrordine, compagni!”, i.e., “Counter-order, comrades!”. It was the sudden announcement of an impromptu change in policies and ideas that activists ought to support with the same enthusiasm and dedication they previously displayed for their blatant contrary. Guareschi’s amusing assumption was that, no matter what, communists dully obey whatever kind of order comes from the party, inhaling the “official truth” (even typos in articles and manifestos) from a “third nostril” that nature provided them with.
The CCP has now launched its “Counter-order, comrades!” campaign regarding demography, declaring the country now fully open to childbirth. The days of the staggering “one-child policy” and the subsequent “two-child policy” are over, the reason being the progressive decrease of the Chinese population.
The decision has been preceded, and prepared, by three relevant steps. The first is the 7th National Population Census in December 2020; the second is a report by a team of expert researchers of the People’s Bank of China (中国人民银行, PBC), dated March 26, 2021 and released on April 14; and the third is the publication of the December census data on May 11, 2021.
All three steps reveal a decrease in China’s population figures, but with a significant difference.
Lowest population in 60 years or a birth rate decrease?
It is not clear why the results of the December census were withheld so long after having been announced as imminent. Also, the full census itself is not published as yet. To this date, the web site of the National Bureau of Statistics of China (国家统计局, NBS) shows only the latest full census of 2010 (these demographic and sociological investigations are now conducted every decade). The only 2020 data available are those revealed by a series of eight press releases on May 11, 2021.
What is clear is that the data presented by the PBC’s experts differ from those ‘trailed’ by the NBS. In a normal country it happens every day that different, often private, institutions and agencies of the government conduct independent research resulting in different (sometimes very different) conclusions. But China is not a normal country: it’s a totalitarian country, where all is controlled by the state or enjoys only partial freedom according to the state’s will and designs. So, it is rather improbable that the PBC and the NBS could act so independently as to contradict each other.
In a normal country, this wouldn’t arouse any enduring curiosity, but China is not a normal country. In China, every discrepancy displayed in public could amount to a danger for the central power or even a betrayal.
What is the discrepancy then? The PBC’s experts said that China’s total population had decreased for the first time in 60 years, going below 1.4 billion. This news was published on April 27 by the Financial Times, which was the first newspaper to report on the PBC’s research, and then relayed by many other media outlets. The NBS refuted this finding in the second of its eight press releases on May 11, saying that the country’s population had not gone below the 1.4 billion figure and was in fact still growing but at a slower rate. Thus, not the total population, but the birth rate had decreased for the first time since the 1955 national census, and it is the birth rate (rather than the absolute decrease of the total population) which is the problem.
The ghost of Maoism
The difference is noteworthy for two reasons. The figure of 1.4 billion is both huge and a symbol. It is a demographic ‘sacred limes,’ a threshold be crossed in one direction only. It is round and grandiose, perfect to show the regime’s muscles. Demography is a device rhetorically used by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes but is especially dear to Communist rulers and useful for Xi Jinping’s China in the age of the “New Silk Road.”
The second reason is more serious. In 1961, China was at the peak of the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1962), one of the many political and economic follies of Chairman Mao, who, in an excess of omnipotence, decided that China, at that time essentially a rural country, had to equal or even overtake the steel production of the democratic superpowers, including the U.S. Officially, at that time the population shrank by 13.4 million, but in his Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (New York: Walker, 2010), Dutch historian Frank Dikötter counts at least 45 million deaths, also documenting episodes of cannibalism committed by starving people. In Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao’s Great Famine (London, UK: Allen Lane, 2012), Chinese author and journalist Yang Jisheng concludes that 36 million people starved to death between 1958 and 1962, while 40 million others failed to be born.
These and other millions were the death toll attributable to Chairman Mao, and the politically-induced demographic winter of the Maoist era was one of the chief results of the unsustainable economic disaster that served as the real rationale for the “one-child policy” that post-Maoist rulers launched in 1979 and inserted in Article 25 of the General Principles of the fourth Constitution of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国宪法), or PRC, adopted in 1982. Forced abortion, forced sterilization of women, babies left alone to die and babies kidnapped to be sold as ‘orphans’ to foreigners caused an unknown number of casualties. A propaganda video, aired by the Chinese state TV in 1998, claimed that 338 million people had been prevented from being born.
As shown in a table published in the NBS’ press release no. 2 regarding the December 2020 national census, the Chinese birth rate peaked in 1982 and declined when the “one-child policy” inserted into the national Constitution took full effect.
This is what British journalist Jasper Becker calls Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (London, UK, John Murray: 1996) in a book that Dikötter judges still very readable even after his own seminal study on the subject, in comparison to other early publications on that great famine, which are rather dated. Perhaps these old ghosts are haunting the present CCP rulers who make no mystery of drawing inspiration from many aspects of Maoism, in a regime where fake news is mass-produced by the state.
Two conclusions for one thriller
The curious side of this kind-of-a-thriller is that both the PBC and the NBS are part of the Chinese government as deputy-cabinet level agencies directly under the PRC’s State Council (中華人民共和國國務院). This is the chief administrative authority of the country, chaired by the premier, who is (since 2013) Li Keqiang. In a normal country, conflicts among different state institutions happen. They may happen in China too, but since China is not a normal country, this may reveal two things. A crack (of some sort) in the regime or a mere mistake. In a democratic country, public mistakes can be costly, in a totalitarian country like China they surely are. As are cracks.
This thriller may thus have two conclusions. In the first scenario, the PBC’s experts didn’t make any mistake. So, the NBS is lying, its data are fake news, and China has demographically gone back to those dark times when the population officially shrank by almost 14 million. It would mean that demographically the country is at the same point as when it implemented a massacre to repair another massacre, and it now needs another “Counter-order, comrades!” to cancel the previous one (the 2015 “two-child policy”) which in its turn canceled the one before that (the 1979–2015 “one-child policy” to cancel the effect of Maoism).
In the second scenario, the PBC’s experts were wrong. The NBS told the plain truth, and China’s birth rate has been constantly decreasing since the “one-child policy” became part of the Chinese Constitution.
In both cases, it’s the Chinese totalitarian state that decides on fundamental human freedoms and rights like having babies and how many to have. Contrasting policies like mass massacres or “sons for the motherland” are within the reach of the next “Counter-order, comrades!” And in fact, while the country is now officially fully open for childbirth, forced abortions and sterilizations continue to serve as tools for the CCP’s genocidal policy against Uyghurs.