China Power

The Sexual Revolution Behind China’s Demographic Crisis

Recent Features

China Power | Society | East Asia

The Sexual Revolution Behind China’s Demographic Crisis

The “one-child policy” didn’t just artificially limit births; it dramatically reshaped the way Chinese society – particularly women – thinks about sex.

The Sexual Revolution Behind China’s Demographic Crisis
Credit: Depositphotos

During the late 1970s, China implemented the “one-child policy.” The primary goal was controlling population growth, which could have hindered the country’s economic development. The policy was enforced through severe fines, forced abortions for women, and denying government benefits to children born outside the state plan, who couldn’t receive hukou registration.

The human cost of the policy was significant, but it worked – for a time. China’s one-child policy effectively created a demographic dividend, which occurs when a country’s birth and death rates both decline. The consequence was an astonishing growth in China’s working-age population, from 594 million to over 1 billion between 1980 and 2015. 

The policy had far-reaching effects well beyond demographics and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. In 2015, when the one-child policy was lifted, China found itself with a completely different society. More than 30 years of birth control deeply affected the socialization of new generations, who mostly grew up as only children. As China tries now to reverse the demographic decline by encouraging more births, the goal is proving to be more difficult than expected. 

Now the CCP is having to come to terms with the new habits of the young, many of which work against the need to restore a birth rate sufficient to keep China’s population from collapsing. In 2022, the Chinese population dropped for the first time; in 2023, the picture was even worse, with a fall in births and a rise in deaths resulting in over 2 million fewer Chinese people living in mainland China compared to 2022, according to data released by the National Statistics Bureau. And future trends do not look brighter at all.

To understand the real impact of the one-child policy, and why it is very difficult to reverse its effects, it is important to pay attention to the many externalities produced by the policy which are compounding its impact. A perfect example of this is sexuality, an element that is intimately linked to demography, but which was not taken into account when the one-child policy was started.

More Free, But Less “Productive” Sex

Chinese people born during the one-child policy era have developed a new understanding of sex, placing less emphasis on reproduction and more on pleasure. Globalization has played an important role: Since the 1980s, Chinese people have been exposed to Western cultural products such as music, novels, magazines, movies, and television series that frequently feature explicit expressions of sexuality and intimacy, as well as presenting new family behaviors such as non-marital cohabitation. 

Nonetheless, the biggest push came from the Chinese government itself. To prompt the one-child policy, the party launched a massive education campaign on contraception to control fertility. This campaign provided free condoms and other contraceptive products. As a result, the link between sex and fertility has been broken at the national level, justifying sex for pleasure. 

When sex is no longer deeply tied to reproduction, sexual behaviors and practices that were once considered to be “abnormal,” “immoral,” or even “illegal” – premarital sex, extramarital sex, same-sex relationships, etc. – flourish, as numerous studies show.

Parallel to sex becoming more free, traditional institutions, such as marriage, seem to suffer a negative decline. Two statistics make this trend clear: From 2013 to 2020, the number of couples who married in China decreased by 39.5 percent, dropping from 13.5 million to 8.1 million. Additionally, the average age of first-time parents increased from 24.1 in 1990 to 27.5 in 2020. 

It is difficult to raise a child in China outside of marriage. While national reproduction policies do not explicitly ban unmarried women from having children, proof of marriage is often required for parents to access free services such as prenatal healthcare, a mother’s salary during maternity leave, and job protection. As a result, the declining marriage rate is an important factor driving China’s birthrate decline. Also, people are less likely to have more than one child if they have children later in life, so the rising age of first-time parents is working against China’s push to increase the birth rate.

The Sexual Revolution Is Feminist

In this evolving social environment, Chinese women have been particularly impacted. The shift away from the traditional model toward a more modern one has provided women with more freedom from patriarchal duties, allowing them to take advantage of other changes such as educational expansion and growing economic and career opportunities. Traditional moral norms for women, such as chastity and fidelity, have considerably loosened, and premarital sex is no longer seen as moral corruption for women.

Sexual freedom has also become a prominent feature of Chinese feminism. The idea that women can initiate sexual activity and should enjoy sex rather than serve men has gained acceptance among both women and men. The easy access to contraceptives has enabled women to control their bodies and separate sexuality from procreation.

In their article published in 2019, Angela Xiao Wu and Yige Dong identified two distinct forms of feminism that are currently prevalent in China. The first is entrepreneurial feminism, which urges women to abandon the traditional role of a self-sacrificing wife and strive for economic independence. This increases their bargaining power in the marriage market and helps them improve their status within the family. The second is non-cooperative Chinese feminism, which values female sexuality and regards economic status as a means of achieving sexual autonomy within society. This approach is considered more radical and liberating. 

In both cases, feminists’ reproductive choices present a complex and radical problem for the Chinese Communist Party, which is currently trying to push women back into “house life” and encourage them to have more babies.

High Stakes 

It seems that the CCP has unleashed certain forces that it is having difficulty managing. All these forces are leading toward a decrease in the country’s birth rate, which could prove disastrous.

If the number of people in China’s working-age population continues to decline, it could result in a reduction in the number of people working, which may cause an increase in the cost of labor and manufacturing in the country. This could, in turn, lead to higher prices for manufactured goods. Moreover, with fewer people starting families, there could be a long-term decrease in demand for houses, which would also impact the demand for commodities. Additionally, China’s government may face difficulties in paying for its underfunded national pension system. 

Normally, as countries develop economically, demographic and socioeconomic changes occur. As income and education levels increase, families tend to have fewer children. This dynamic is usually triggered when countries have already achieved a high-income level, as was the case for Japan and Italy. However, in China’s case, the one-child policy was imposed from above and the risk is that the country “gets old before it gets rich.” While the policy was laid the rest almost a decade ago, the social changes it unleashed are harder to roll back.