A weekly recap of the stories to watch in China this week, plus an exclusive analysis. Delivered Wednesday.
June 2, 2021, 5 p.m.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights of this week: China provides a. in front Three-child policy in the hope of increasing birth rates, why President Speech by Xi Jinping does not indicate a change in diplomatic tone, and Hong Kong authorities ban the vigil in Tiananmen Square for the second year in a row.
If you would like to receive China Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please register here.
Beijing introduces three-child policy
On Monday, China announced that married couples would be allowed to have up to three children, raising the official two-child limit in a much-anticipated move. The one-child policy, which ran for 36 years until 2016, left a demographic time bomb in China: falling birth rates and an aging population. Although Beijing officially saw population growth in 2020, a Financial Times report suggests that the original census figures showed a decline.
Despite government hopes, the introduction of the two-child policy in 2016 did not spark a baby boom. The recent policy change is unlikely to affect China’s birth rate as well.
The public has responded with scornful contempt for the idea that government restrictions have deterred parents from having more children, rather than the exorbitant cost of raising children in China – from migrant families forced to pay fees for local public schools to parents of the upper class who fear that their children will fall behind without taking flute or calligraphy lessons. Unless the government ensures parents’ economic security, the birth rate will not change.
Even so, many families will welcome the end of the restrictions. Family planning policies have had dire consequences, including forced abortions and sterilizations, and children without legal livelihoods cut off from public services. Prior to the policy change in the 2010s, parents who had two children lost their jobs and faced heavy fines. But the two-child policy also led to a shift towards pregnancy discrimination and pressure on working mothers to quit their jobs. Unmarried mothers remain the target of official discrimination. China’s new natalistic ambitions are likely to lead to new restrictions on abortion as well as other pressures on women.
So why limit the number of children a couple can have? One reason is to cover the ongoing forced sterilization of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, whose birth rate fell by almost 50 percent between 2017 and 2020. Another reason is that China now has an enormous family planning bureaucracy that supports many jobs. Party leaders may also be concerned that the wealthy extended families – like the late Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho, known for his four wives and 17 children – would arouse resentment.
Xi renames Chinese diplomacy? Some Western commentators read a recent speech by President Xi Jinping as a move away from so-called wolf warrior diplomacy – the aggressive online stance of China officials – towards a more conciliatory model. The top management has been trying for some time to curb diplomatic comments that encourage setback. But Xi’s speech, which is essentially a series of standard clichés about the “battle of public opinion”, does not read to me as a change of tone, but rather as a doubling of the maintenance of the global discourse on the conditions of Beijing.
Any attempt to soften China’s image could be undermined by the country’s own actions, such as the recent break into Malaysian airspace, which sparked an unusually strong reaction from Kuala Lumpur. The purpose of the maneuver, other than to assert Beijing’s far-reaching claims to the South China Sea, is unclear. Malaysia has cooled down a bit on China since the 1MDB scandal and the 2018 elections, but the countries have no serious military or territorial disputes. Chinese raids at sea have caused neighboring Indonesia to triple the size of its submarine fleet.
Read an in-depth analysis of Xi’s speech by David Bandurski at the China Media Project.
Tiananmen vigil extinguished in Hong Kong. The authorities have ruled the Hong Kong Tiananmen Massacre commemorations, held every June 4th since 1990, illegal for the second year in a row. The move falls under the guise of pandemic laws against public gatherings, but the crackdown is clearly politically motivated. The city’s museum on June 4 also had to close due to a license investigation.
The annual protests have long been a litmus test of Hong Kong’s lingering freedoms and a thorn in Beijing’s side. After the draconian national security law passed a year ago, that era has come to an end.
Prominent foreign journalist was kicked out. Peter Hessler, the most famous Western writer left in China, leaves the country after his employer refuses to renew his contract. Hessler was unusually popular with young Chinese people, especially aspiring writers, and his return to the country in 2019 for an apprenticeship was well known across the country. But Hessler’s writing over the past two years has been limited, and his biggest article for the New Yorker – on China’s handling of the coronavirus – has been criticized for being apolitical.
Weak job numbers. In May, China saw more layoffs than job increases, particularly in the service sector. Despite a recovery from the initial effects of the pandemic, the Chinese market is still plagued by profound uncertainty. This mood has accelerated a long-term trend: Young people are moving away from the private sector and towards secure jobs in the state. The public service, while not well paid, offers many benefits, as well as protection from layoffs and the frequent abuse of the private sector.
Yuan cooling. China’s central bank is trying to contain the yuan’s rise against the US dollar through cooling measures, primarily by increasing the required reserves from 5 to 7 percent. The yuan’s value rose 11 percent last year after hitting a 12-year low and was expected to continue to rise.
Beijing is cautious about an overly strong yuan, in part because the dollar’s depreciation against the yen under the 1985 Plaza Agreement undermined Tokyo’s growth. But the rising raw material prices in the wake of the pandemic have led some economists to adopt the idea.
Scammers Never Thrive? A fascinating interview from Motherboard reveals the extent of China’s video game cheat industry. Since the World of Warcraft gold mining rush began in 2005, China has been both a huge consumer of multiplayer online games and the primary producer of ways to cheat in them. In the 2000s, it was mostly Americans who paid the Chinese for these cheats, but today China’s domestic market has grown so that hacks for games like PlayerUnknown’s popular Battlegrounds have become a multi-million dollar industry.
It’s risky too: fueled in part by the influence of gaming giants like Tencent, Chinese law treats cheat creators as hackers and risks heavy jail sentences.
Dandong, Liaoning: 2.5 million people
Across the Yalu River, residents of Dandong, Liaoning Province, catch a rare sight: normal life in North Korea. The Chinese city is just across the border from its North Korean counterpart Sinuiju. Every day when the borders are open, buses full of curious Chinese go on carefully monitored tours to see their poorer neighbors or to take a ferry to see North Korean farmers through binoculars.
The exchange runs in both directions. Despite surveillance cameras and barbed wire, North Koreans cross the border constantly and mostly illegally. China regularly arrests North Koreans and leads them back to an uncertain fate. Some make it to a new life in China or eventually to South Korea; others are not there for defects, but for exchange. A few officially sanctioned elite tourists come to Dandong from across the river, but some of them are actually secret police to track down their compatriots.
A Sino-Korean friendship bridge connects the two cities, and the remains of their Japanese predecessor, destroyed during the Korean War, are visible nearby. A small Korean community lives in Dandong, although most of China’s ethnic Korean minority live in Yanbian, another frontier province. This population is rapidly shrinking, lured by the prospect of easy immigration to South Korea and the quiet end of Korean-language education in China in recent years.