Nicholas Eberstadt and Ashton Verdery document a key problem linked to a controversial communist Chinese population control policy.

On January 22, 2023, the Chinese calendar entered the Year of the Rabbit, in China a symbol of fertility, longevity and prosperity. The ironies, alas, are palpable: Chinese society in 2023, like many others, must cope with strikingly low fertility. The year started with the Chinese Communist Party’s acknowledgment that the country experienced fewer births than deaths in 2022, marking the first year of decline in population since the catastrophic famine of the early 1960s caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward. And subsequent news reinforced the sense that China is being buffeted by gale-force demographic winds. China recorded the smallest number of marriages since 1986, when the country was home to some 53 million fewer people age 20-39 years.

It’s no surprise that these demographic turning points garnered such attention. Consider, for example, the profound implications (for both China and the world) of the shrinking ratio of China’s working-age population to senior citizens. The trend can be expected to constrain the government’s ambitious spending (on everything from artificial intelligence to military modernization), to sharply increase workers’ wages and render China’s exports less competitive, and to reduce China’s long-astounding pace of economic growth to more modest quotidian levels.

But even as the strains from an aging, shrinking workforce and sub-replacement fertility ripple through the Chinese economy, another huge and inescapable demographic transformation is chugging along – one unrecognized by most analysts. This is the withering of China’s family networks. 

The vulnerability of China’s family structure seems to be a statistical blind spot for its leaders. Like other modern governments, Beijing does not bother to count cousins, nephews or widowed grandmothers in assembling demographic data. But that does not make the changes in the family now underway any less portentous.