Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a three-times-a-week update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it impacts the world. Sign up here.
For generations of Chinese parents, the success of their children has long been one of their most important goals in life – and they are known to be willing to make great sacrifices for it.
And so when a Shanghai family refused to be taken from their home into government quarantine during the city’s sixth week of lockdown, a police officer warned them with what he thought would be a powerful threat to bring them to heel – their children’s future.
“If you don’t obey the orders from the city government, you will be punished, and the punishment will affect three generations in your family,” the hazmat-suited police officer said, pointing his finger at the camera in a video posted on Chinese social media.
“We are the last generation, thank you,” a young man, who is not seen in the video, replied adamantly, in an apparent suggestion he is not planning to have any kids.
The video ended there, with no indication of whether the family was eventually taken away. But it spread like wildfire on China’s internet, resonating with many young Chinese who are fed up with the increasing pressure on them to have children – from a society and government that many say has provided them with little of the material and emotional security they need to raise a child.
“I laughed at first but in the end I felt a sense of great sadness. He is resisting by giving up his reproductive rights,” said a user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform.
Carrying on the family line has long been a filial duty in traditional Chinese culture. But in today’s China, not having children – or delaying it – has become a form of soft resistance and silent protest against what many see as the disappointing reality they live in, with deep-rooted structural problems stemming from a system that they have little power to change.
“It is a tragic expression of despair of the deepest kind,” Zhang Xuezhong, a human rights lawyer and former law professor in Shanghai, wrote on Twitter about the video.
“We’ve been robbed of a future that is worth looking forward to. It is arguably the strongest denunciation a young man can make of the era he lives in.”
Over the past decade, an increasing number of Chinese millennials have delayed – or outright rejected – marriage and childbirth, as they confront high work pressure, skyrocketing property prices, rising education costs and discrimination against mothers in the workplace.
Last year, just 7.6 million Chinese couples registered for marriage – a 44% drop from 2013 and the lowest in 36 years. At the same time, the country’s birthrate dropped to 7.5 births per 1,000 people, a record low since the founding of Communist China, with nine provinces and regions registering negative population growth.
The Chinese government is worried. For decades, it had strictly enforced a one-child policy that forced millions of women to abort pregnancies deemed illegal by the state. But as China’s birthrate plummeted, demographers warned of a looming population crisis.
Beijing scrapped the one-child policy in 2016 and relaxed it further last year to allow couples to have three children, with local governments churning out a flurry of propaganda slogans and financial incentives to encourage more births – but the birthrate has continued to nosedive.
Some officials and policy advisers have appeared tone-deaf to young people’s demands. Last month, a law professor and delegate to the Jinzhou municipal People’s Congress in Hubei province suggested that in order to promote marriage and childbirth, the media should reduce or avoid reporting on “independent women” and the “double-income-no-kids (DINK) lifestyle,” because they are not in line with the country’s “mainstream values.” The suggestion drew a backlash online.
As the pandemic drags on, the sense of disenchantment among many of the country’s younger generation has only grown.
The increasingly frequent and stringent lockdowns – and the chaos and tragedies that arose from them – have made citizens realize how fragile their rights are in the face of a state apparatus that brooks no dissent and a callous bureaucracy trained to take orders from above with little flexibility.
That is especially so in Shanghai, which is reeling from seven weeks of stringent lockdown. In the country’s wealthiest and most glamorous city, residents have been subject to widespread food shortages, lack of medical care and forced quarantine in spartan makeshift facilities. Authorities initially separated young children from their parents in isolation – and only reversed course after a public outcry.
The mounting frustration and anger erupted on Chinese social media – and in some cases, censors struggled to keep up. Some residents protested from their windows, banging pots and pans and shouting in frustration. Others clashed with police and health workers in the streets – something rarely seen in a country where dissent is routinely suppressed.
Over the past week, local officials forced residents to hand over their keys after they were taken away to quarantine, so that health workers could go in and soak their personal belongings in disinfectant – with little scientific justification for their actions or regard for private property rights.
For many residents, that was the last straw. Even their homes – their private space and last refuge – could not be spared the zealous enforcement of the government’s zero-Covid policy. Some say their lives have become dispensable in the pursuit of what officials deem the “greater good,” with residents left powerless to protect their loved ones.
To many young people, the crisis unfolding in Shanghai is setting off alarm bells. If even China’s most developed city with the largest middle-class population, the supposedly most open-minded bureaucrats and the most cosmopolitan culture could not be spared such authoritarian treatment, will other cities fare any better?
“Who is willing to have children when things have come to this? Who dares to have children?” asked a user on Weibo.
“Your reign ends with me. And the suffering you have caused also ends with me,” said another.
The fast-spreading anger soon attracted the attention of censors. By Thursday evening, most of the videos had been scrubbed from the Chinese internet. On Weibo, several related hashtags, from “We are the last generation” to “Last generation,” have been censored after attracting heated discussions.
But suppressing what young people want to say will not help persuade them to have children. On the contrary, that is likely only to add to their disaffection.