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Πέμπτη, 18 Απριλίου, 2024

The Dragon Won’t Bring China a Baby Boom

Περισσότερα Νέα

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The highlights this week: The start of the auspicious year of the dragon underscores China’s declining birthrate, Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi stirs anger by missing a match in Hong Kong, and Chinese Premier Li Qiang makes an economic call to action.

Is the Year of the Dragon a Bust?
China returned to work this week after the weeklong Spring Festival holiday, when the country celebrates the Lunar New Year. 2024 is the year of the dragon, which is often a popular year to have children. Those born in dragon years are considered lucky: that is, unusually successful and charismatic. That belief usually causes a small boost in births across East Asia when the beast comes around in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle.

The traditional belief system that once supported the Chinese zodiac no longer holds much weight, but certain aspects of it stick around—mocked by some people, sincerely believed by others, half-believed by most. Oddly enough, children born in the year of the dragon seem to do better than their peers. For example, they are 14 percent more likely to graduate college, perhaps because their parents believe them to be blessed and invest greater educational resources in them.

However, because of China’s declining birthrate, 2024 is still likely to see fewer births than any previous year of the dragon. In 2011, which fell before a dragon year, China’s birthrate was 13.27 children per 1,000 people. Last year, the figure was just 6.39 children per 1,000 people—a fall so sharp that Beijing is uncomfortable publishing some of the statistics.

Like other years that precede the dragon, 2011 also saw a slight birth bump compared to the year before, likely because the number of marriages also rose. There was no equivalent birthrate increase in 2023, which saw the same continued decline and no rise in marriages. This year of the dragon may be a bit of a bust as people in China shy away from the soaring costs of child-rearing despite government propaganda pushing women to have more children and to stop working to raise them.

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It’s easy to make dire predictions based on China’s baby bust, but demographic projections are not an exact science, especially for a country where population statistics are unreliable. (China’s miscalculations decades ago played a big part in the introduction of the one-child policy.) Still, increased worries about population decline play into wider fears about the future in China. Economic and political concerns likely feed into parental anxiety, pushing the birthrate down further.

All this likely means no major burst of baby dragons in 2024. Some Chinese nationalists take issue with the dragon itself, suggesting the year is misnamed. Recently, state media outlets have pushed claims that Chinese dragons differ from their Western counterparts—as peaceful water spirits rather than fire-breathing monsters—and that the Chinese term loong should be used instead. This misrepresents both Western dragons and those in Chinese mythology, which are often dangerous forces of nature.

Nonetheless, the linguistic distinction is indicative of the pervasive anxiety that currently hangs over China—which doesn’t engender trust in the future or an inclination to have more kids.

What We’re Following
Messi faces nationalist anger. Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi is the latest target of China’s online rage after he failed to turn up for an exhibition match in Hong Kong but showed up for another in Japan a few days later. Aided by Chinese state media and Hong Kong newspapers, rumors spread that Messi’s absence was a political gesture, which the soccer star denied. The sports bureau in Hangzhou, China, canceled an exhibition match that the city planned to host between Argentina and Nigeria next month.

Messi doesn’t seem to have strong opinions about Hong Kong and likely had a legitimate reason for his no-show. But the lack of evidence doesn’t really matter when it comes to reactionary Chinese nationalism. Officials respond out of fear that they will be accused of a lack of patriotism unless they jump on the bandwagon. Further explanation from Messi only feeds the anger, so an abject apology may not be enough.

Outreach to Hungary. This week, China made an unusual offer of security aid to Hungary, after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was forced to back down from attempts to block European Union aid to Ukraine. China has longstanding ties to Central and Eastern European countries, but many have turned away due to Beijing’s bungled diplomacy and even bullying. Reaching out to Orban not only supports a fellow ally of Russia but it is also consistent with China’s preference for autocratic leaders.

Tech and Business
Premier calls for economic action. On Sunday, Chinese Premier Li Qiang called for officials to get their act together on the economy, telling them that they need “pragmatic and forceful” action and must “do more things that are conductive to boosting confidence and expectations.” It’s interesting to consider whether these generic calls to action have any real effect in China. After all, following signals from top leaders is how one advances in Chinese politics.

However, for every exhortation for economic pragmatism from someone like Li, there is also a call for ideological security or self-reliance and decoupling from the far more powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping. Specific instructions might make a difference, but Li doesn’t have enough clout to make this vague guidance really matter.

Good economic news? This year’s Spring Festival travel was up 19 percent compared to the same period in 2019, and spending increased by 7.7 percent. Chinese state media immediately seized upon the figures as a sign of “economic momentum” and “revitalized consumption.” But it is a little less impressive considering that many people who didn’t get to see family throughout the pandemic are just now catching up.

Spending also didn’t increase on par with travel, meaning that people were spending less on each individual trip. Markets didn’t respond with particular enthusiasm to the news, although government action did staunch the bleeding for the Chinese stock market just before the holiday period.

A Bit of Culture
In honor of a the year of the dragon, below is a Lunar New Year poem from a dragon emperor, Taizong, who ruled from 626 to 649 AD. Taizong was an unusually forceful ruler, who like many Tang dynasty emperors took the throne by seeing off his brothers, by orchestrating the killing of two of them.

New Year’s Night
Translated by Brendan O’Kane

Sunset light slants over fragrant halls;
Years beautify the silken palaces.
The cold departs, and with it winter snow;
And warmth brings spring breezes with it.

Sweet fragrance unfurls from plum blossoms by the terrace;
Red candles burn, like arrangements of floral offerings
All rejoice in the new year and the old
One night to welcome one and see off the other.

The translator notes: “This is not a very good poem—but nobody would have told him that at the time, and it’s not really meant to be a work of art. Rather it’s a reminder from Taizong of the scope of his power: opening with the Tang palaces and then implicitly claiming the seasons, rituals, and New Year’s revelers themselves.”


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