In early 2023, China officially admitted that the country is experiencing population decline for the first time in 60 years. That announcement did not surprise ordinary Chinese residents struggling to make ends meet amid a slowing Chinese economy and the political turbulence led by the now abandoned zero COVID measures.
On the Chinese internet, a term called “human mine” (人矿) captured the public’s attention for a few days before being censored by Chinese cyberspace officials. This new internet term ironically equates human beings to mineral resources like gold, iron, and copper. In a now-censored social media post, an internet user made the comparison between ordinary Chinese residents and natural resources: “Human mines” refers to those people who spend 20 years in school, pay real estate mortgages for 30 years, and help hospitals make profits 20 years. The term implies that China’s people are treated as consumable products from the moment they are born.
This bizarre, and to some extent offensive, term reveals the strong disapproval of individuals living in China toward the country’s policies on education, employment, and healthcare. China’s failure to deliver meaningful improvements in these areas has contributed to many people’s decision not to have children.
While the term might be merely a few days old, the idea of using specific policies to manipulate the country’s population has a long history dating back to the Mao era. According to documents published by the Chinese Communist Party History and Archive Research Institute, Mao vowed to conduct planned human production in the country. When meeting female representatives from Yugoslavia in 1956, Mao said that the birthrate remained in an anarchistic and disorganized state: “Why can’t we have plans for producing humans? I think it is possible.”
Subsequently, in a high-level meeting in July 1957, Mao emphasized that the country needed plans for “orderly” reproduction of humans. In his speech, Mao compared people to fabrics, chairs, tables, and steel, claiming that humans are not good at managing their own production.
While Mao’s leadership ended in 1976 with his death, Chinese political leaders continued to adopt his ambition to control the growth of the population. In the late 1970s, China’s began to adopt a “one-child policy” to reduce population growth. The restrictive policy started with Chinese Communist cadre members and quickly expanded to the entire population.
The policy had the goal of stopping population growth by 2000. But instead of helping achieve that goal, the controversial restriction on giving birth to children led to further social issues and massive human rights violations within the country.
In the summer of 1991, a county in China’s Shandong province started a 100-day zero-birth campaign. To eliminate the possibility of newborn babies during this period, Chinese officials hired thugs to search for pregnant women and violently beat them to force miscarriages. In July 2022, a local public health bureau in Guangxi admitted its practice of forcefully taking children away from their parents in the late 1990s to enforce the one-child policy.
China finally attained its initial goal of stopping population growth 23 years later than its proposed timeline. However, the Chinese government has found itself facing more struggles caused by its earlier policies. In 2015, the Chinese government ended the one-child policy and subsequently allowed all individuals to have three children in 2021. Yet those efforts achieved few results toward solving the labor shortage and population decline.
Despite the Chinese government promising a more vibrate future economy with high-paying job opportunities, individuals born in the 1980s and 1990s in China now find themselves struggling from the skyrocketing housing prices, a high cost of living, and excessive competition in education and employment.
Thus, individuals in China who might be interested in raising children are discouraged by the false promises made to their parents’ generation by the government; the high costs of housing, childcare, and education; and the Chinese government’s minimal interest to address the challenges and hurdles for families to raise their children. The data shows that few Chinese millennials and members of Gen-Z are interested in having multiple children – and an increasing number do not plan to have any children at all.
The vacillations in China’s population policy based on state needs validated the internet rage that compares humans to extracted minerals. Similar to mines controlling daily output to maximize their profits, China also adopts policies to control the number of its population for its political and economic gains, without the consent of its people.