Tea Leaf Nation

Will China Get Lonely Before It Gets Rich?

China is becoming a nation of singles, 'DINKs,' and empty-nesters, says a new government report.

Four Generations Under One Roof, a 1940s novel by author Lao She about life in Beijing under Japanese occupation, describes what was then an archetypal Chinese family: large, multigenerational, and united. But in modern China, a place of massive internal migration and upheaval, that image is fast becoming quaint.

That's the basic conclusion reached in an official report released by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC), the agency charged with overseeing the country's demographic policy, which shows that Chinese families have become greyer and more isolated, with fewer children. The Development Report of Chinese Families is the first official study of Chinese family structure that has been made public, and the picture that emerges from the report is likely to worry some Chinese economists and policymakers.

Chinese families have been getting smaller for decades, and not just because of the country's reviled family planning policies. Before the 1950s, the average household in China had more than 5.3 people. But the report shows that number dropping to 3.96 by 1990, and then to 3.02 by 2012. Since 2000, the decrease in birth rates has no longer been the primary driver of shrinking of family size, with geographic mobility and changes in social mores playing bigger roles.

Three demographics increasingly stand out: Unmarried young workers, couples who have delayed or foregone childbirth, and elderly empty-nesters. 160 million Chinese households, or 40 percent of the nationwide total, now consist only of one or two people. In the decade between 2000 and 2010, when urbanization was at full throttle, the number of solo households doubled, and the number of two-member households increased by 68 percent, according to the report.

In urban areas, 45.4 percent of unmarried residents lived alone, spurning the traditional practice of living with parents until marriage. Millions of young Chinese now work in cities far from home -- and even if they live in the same city as their parents, many do not want to move back into a spare bedroom once they start working. Young men and women are delaying marriage to pursue career goals, save up for down payments on cars or houses, fulfill lifestyle choices, or wait to find the right mate.

According to the findings, the number of nuclear families, defined as a married couple with children, declined "significantly" but the number of dingke families, (a Chinese transliteration of DINK, or which stands for families with "dual income, no kids"), has been on the rise. (The report does not specify a number.)

For thousands of years, elderly Chinese had lived with their children and grandchildren, but that is rapidly changing too, as young people leave their hometowns for education and employment opportunities. According to the report, 90 percent of China's elderly live at home instead of assisted living facilities. But their children and grandchildren often choose not to live with them, or cannot live with them. The problem is particularly acute in rural areas: Millions of young farmhands have left for factories and construction sites, while rural social security and healthcare resources are comparatively sparse, leaving many elderly to fend for themselves in squalid conditions.

A nascent social security safety net is being built in rural areas, but is not yet particularly sturdy. According to the report, over 40 percent of senior citizens above the age of 80 live alone. The report cites another study that shows 37.5 million elderly Chinese citizens lacked the ability to care for themselves in 2013. A quarter of all elderly lived below the poverty line. In a survey released by the NHFPC, 80 percent of Chinese households say they are worried about supporting their elderly relatives.

Responding to the report on social media, Chinese web users expressed concerns about the future of Chinese families and what it means for the country's economic and social development. Zhi Xiefei, a professor at Nanjing Information Technology University in wealthy Jiangsu province, wrote that China "would not be able to achieve sustainable growth" based on these demographic trends. Many blamed China's longstanding family planning policy, which restricts millions of urban families to only one child per couple. Despite a major reform to the policy in December 2013 that allowed certain urban couples to have two children, bureaucratic red tape remains thick, and the cost of raising children may prove prohibitive to some couples.  

To be sure, there is one bright spot in the report, at least for enterprising real estate developers with an eye on the long term. The report projects that China will have 500 million households in 2040, compared to 430 million today, because of the trends toward smaller families. That could mean more demand for urban housing units in the decades to come. 

For everyone else, the report is likely to stoke concern. It shows anxieties about the expense of caring for children and parents weighing on Chinese families; that, in turn, is likely to reduce their propensity to spend, just as the Chinese economy becomes increasingly reliant on a burgeoning consumer culture to bolster its growth. For Chinese policymakers, this may be the wake-up call they need to continue to reform the country's much-maligned family planning policy. It may get increasingly rare for four Chinese generations to live in one home. But neither need there be so many families of one.

Photo Credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Chinese Lash Out at U.S. Spying Indictment

Web users there think China should sue back.

Chinese web users scoffed and Beijing expressed outrage at the May 19 announcement of a U.S. indictment of five Shanghai-based army officers on charges of hacking and economic espionage. In an uncharacteristically speedy response posted to the Foreign Ministry website within 90 minutes of the US announcement, spokesman Qin Gang called the accusations "absurd" and "purely ungrounded." Qin demanded that U.S. authorities drop the case immediately and added that Beijing would be suspending its participation in Sino-U.S. talks on Internet security due to Washington's "lack of sincerity." Although Chinese mainstream media was slow to pick up the story, China's rowdy social media quickly jumped into the fray. Many Chinese citizens viewed the U.S. accusations as hypocritical, if not risible.

In its indictment filed May 1, the U.S. Department of Justice claims that five officers of People's Liberation Army Unit 61398, all of whom worked out of an office building in the suburbs of Shanghai, hacked into the computers of U.S. firms Westinghouse Electric, Alcoa, Allegheny Technologies, U.S. Steel, and Solar World, as well as the United Steelworkers Union. (U.S.-based Internet security firm Mandiant documented the alleged activities of this unit in a February, 2013 report.) It is the first criminal indictment against state actors for cyber spying against the United States. 

On the Chinese web, users largely dismissed the U.S. accusations as a case of "a thief crying ‘stop the thief!'" and wondered whether China shouldn't pursue charges of its own against U.S. officials for government-sponsored cyber spying. "So this means China can just charge U.S. military officers in the same way," wrote one user on the Weibo microblogging platform. Another called the accusations "ridiculous; the United States has the whole world in its fist, but it's not okay for others to want to listen in on what you're doing."  

Many also wondered aloud whether Beijing shouldn't charge the U.S. National Security Agency for spying on Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. (Documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and reported by the New York Times on March 22 revealed that the NSA had broken into Huawei's networks and monitored communications of its top executives.) China "should prosecute all the agents of U.S. intelligence agencies for using hacking methods to monitor and steal many Chinese secrets, seriously harming Chinese security and economic development," one web user wrote in response to the Foreign Ministry's statement. 

Sami Saydjari, a former Pentagon cyber expert and founder of the Wisconsin Rapids-based consultancy Cyber Defense Agency, told Foreign Policy that the case was a response to Chinese demands that the United States produce proof to back up its allegations of Chinese economic espionage. "This step documents and exposes the attacks and sets the stage to make this an international conversation," he said. Saydjari added that "other diplomatic efforts have failed to dissuade the Chinese from their aggressive cyber espionage program against the United States."  

In announcing the case, both Attorney General Eric Holder and Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Carlin were careful to describe the accusations as relating to economic espionage. The wording appeared to be an attempt to deflect critics who see the charges as hypocritical in light of recent revelations about the extensive global reach of U.S. government spying. "While the men and women of our American businesses spent their business days innovating, creating, and developing strategies to compete in the global marketplace -- these members of unit 61398 spent their business days in Shanghai stealing the fruits of our labor," Carlin said

Chinese web users appeared unmoved by or unaware of this distinction. Spying was the key phrase, and it didn't seem to matter if it the material concerned was economic or political. Wrote one: "Everyone is spying. Whoever doesn't do it must be a fool. It all comes down to who can do it better and who can leave no trace of evidence." On Supercamp, a bulletin board discussion site for military affairs, one user remarked that U.S. knowledge about the details of the case showed that it "had once again infiltrated China's Internet." 

To coincide with the announcement of the case, the FBI posted wanted alerts for the five accused, complete with photos. It seemed unlikely that any of the officers will actually be brought to trial in the United States. But the notices are raising their online profiles. Next to a list of their names posted to Weibo, one user responded with a thumbs-up icon and one word: "heroes." Another wrote the men should get bonuses and "class three merits," a Chinese military honor.

Yiqin Fu and Bethany Allen contributed research.

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