12 min read

Brief #66: demography, hukou, Lei Feng, Uyghur genocide

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1. Demography

China’s ageing population received some important attention in the 14th Five Year Plan (FYP) that will run from 2021 to 2025. China has a rapidly ageing population. By 2025, one-fifth of the population will be over 60. By 2050, China’s dependency ratio is projected to reach 70 per cent. Chinese and international experts have been warning about a demographic time bomb in China for decades — that China will grow old before it grows rich and powerful.

The 14th FYP makes it clear that this is a priority issue that needs to be tackled by the implementation of a “proactive national strategy on ageing population” (积极应对人口老龄化国家战略). In contrast, the 13th FYP (that ran from 2016 to 2020) did not use the term “national strategy”, and merely stated that: “[China] will respond to population aging, strengthen top-level design, and establish a system for addressing population aging”.

Beyond that, the 14th FYP has some noticeable differences to the 13th FYP on the framing of the issue of demography. The 13th FYP still emphasised “family planning” (计划生育), a term that used to mean one-child policy, then changed to two-child policy just before the 13th FYP in 2016. The 14th FYP instead focused on “enhance the inclusiveness of fertility policy” (增强生育政策包容性).

The change in language indicates that policy is moving in a more “pro-birth” direction. This is not surprising. Countries wanting to reverse an ageing population must either take in more migrants or put in place policies to raise the birth rate. Most governments put more effort into the latter, as that tends to be more politically popular. We previously wrote that:

The Chinese Government does not consider an individual’s fertility as a personal choice, but attempts to control it. The targets of control are overwhelmingly women rather than men — forced IUD and sterilisation rather than forced vasectomy. When the local enforcement is more lenient, fines are issued. When the enforcement is more strict, forced late-term abortions can be the result.

That passage described what happened in most parts of China in the 1990s under the strict implementation of the one-child policy, but is now happening to a particular group of people (such as the Uyghurs). Just as Beijing is trying to restrict fertility in some groups, it is also encouraging fertility in other groups, namely, among Han urban dwellers.

One reason for that is the concept of “优生优育”, meaning “superior birth and raising” — it comes very close to eugenics. The attitude towards eugenics among the wider population in China is often rather positive. And that attitude to eugenics and Social Darwinism (mixed with sexism) produces a rather toxic attitude towards fertility and gender.

Governments can encourage fertility in at least two ways. One is to remove impediments for individuals or families to have children. These are usually “progressive” policies, such as better support for childcare and removing sex discrimination at work. Another way is to foster a more “conservative” social attitude, such as shaming single women and penalising working women. China appears to be doing both.

On the conservative social front, some recent policies have become quite controversial. Recently we wrote about concerns around the “feminisation of young men”. A new “cooling off” period for divorce has also been implemented this year. While the “cooling off” period is also in force in other countries (in Australia, divorce requires one year of separation), the concern in China is that this is another way for Beijing to encourage “traditional family values”.

Indeed, Xi himself has been quite vocal in reinforcing “traditional family values” or ‘traditional virtues”. Xi has frequently alluded to Confucian ideals of family and gender roles, for example, 妻贤夫安,母慈子孝 (amiable wife and secure husband, compassionate mother and filial son). Such emphasis on the traditional family has resulted in denying single women access to egg freezing services, despite wanting to encourage fertility.

The socially conservative focus on families is perhaps reflected in the new section in the 14th FYP on “strengthening family development” (加强家庭建设). The FYP also contains some more “progressive” aspects. It promotes gender equality (促进男女平等), including “eliminating sex discrimination in employment” (消除就业性别歧视).

Despite recent policies to encourage more births, people in China appear to continue to favour fewer children. The birth rate dropped 15 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019, the lowest point since the founding of the People’s Republic.

2. Hukou reform

Hukou, also known as the household registration system, was introduced in the 1950s. It was used to control internal migration, essentially preventing mass migration from the countryside to cities. It basically divides PRC citizens into two groups: rural and urban. Those born with an urban hukou have a much higher chance of attaining middle-class income than those born with a rural hukou. The hukou system also indicates the place of residence, which then determines the welfare benefits an individual receives.

Since the 1980s, millions of migrants have moved from the countryside to the cities. These people are the labour force that has been driving China’s economic development and urbanisation.

Yet these migrants do not enjoy the social welfare benefits that the urban residents enjoy, including, for example, schooling for children. As a result, many of the migrant workers’ children were “left behind” in the countryside. Despite their contribution to the cities that they worked and lived in (some for years if not decades), these migrant workers are often discriminated against, and derogatively called “peasant workers” (农民工).

In recent years, China has gradually relaxed restrictions of the Hukou system. This is done at different paces in different jurisdictions — not uniform across the country. However, the national policy provided direction and support for this effort. For example, in the 14th FYP:

Liberalise and relax restrictions on settlement of household registration/hukou in cities other than several mega-cities, and pilot implementing a system of registration of household registration/hukou based on place of permanent residence on a trial basis. Completely abolish restrictions on settlement of household registration/hukou in cities with a resident population of less than 3 million, and ensure equal treatment of domestically migrating and local rural migrants in terms of the criteria for settling in cities. Completely relax the conditions for settling in Type I large cities with a permanent population of 3 million to 5 million.

放开放宽除个别超大城市外的落户限制,试行以经常居住地登记户口制度。全面取消城区常住人口 300 万以下的城市落户限制, 确保外地与本地农业转移人口进城落户标准一视同仁。全面放宽城区常住人口 300 万至 500 万的 I 型大城市落户条件。

(translation by Pekingnology)

While changes are gradual, the direction is towards fewer restrictions and discriminatory treatments. For example, Jiangxi recently relaxed restrictions for changing/converting hukou.

A personal anecdote: after I (Yun) moved to Australia, many people in China asked whether I cancelled my Shanghai hukou, and was surprised when I answered in the affirmative. This shows the value that a Shanghai hukou holds in people’s mind.

3. Lei Feng and the moral order

Last week, on 5 March, was China’s Learn from Lei Feng national memorial day (学雷锋纪念日).

The stories of Lei Feng should be familiar to most people educated in China. Lei Feng was a CCP member and PLA soldier who shot to fame in the 1960s as the paragon of Communist virtues: a selfless good samaritan and a loyal soldier of Chairman Mao.

The propaganda about Lei Feng would reach feverish pitches following Mao’s call in March 1963 for the whole country to “learn from Comrade Lei Feng”. Lei became, for a time, a Communist saint. It was convenient, of course, that Lei died in a work-related accident (falling telegraph pole) in August 1962 before Mao made him into a national hero. After all, dead heroes are easier to manage than living ones.

It was convenient also that his virtuous deeds and thoughts were so meticulously recorded in his diary, and he had the good fortune (unlike the rest of us) of having reporters and photographers with him when he did good deeds.

Essentially, Mao needed a hero, and Lei Feng was that hero.

The propaganda surrounding him highlighted the Communist-Maoist moral order, one in which fierce loyalty to the leader, ultra-altruism, and selfless dedication to the revolution was seen as virtues. Lei Feng had proudly proclaimed himself a “rustless screw” in the communist revolution machinery.

You may wonder what Lei Feng has to do with China today. Lei Feng is a symbol of the bygone Communist-Maoist moral order. Today, the Party-state is trying to regain its control over China’s pluralising moral landscape.

The Communist-Maoist moral order collapsed after the end of the Cultural Revolution. The party-state continued to hang on to the remnants of that moral order even as massive social and economic transformation had opened up the moral landscape to pluralisation. Individualism, the pursuit of happiness and material wealth, and critical thinking became acceptable and even desirable. Remember the tumultuous decade of the 1980s when the horizon of possibilities had been wide open for China?

In any case, in the Mao era, you achieved social esteem and material betterment by being politically astute. Today, you can also gain social status and material wealth by becoming a financier, tech entrepreneur or online celebrity. You have more choices in life.

China’s economic liberalisation and its accompanying changes have led to a perceived moral crisis in Chinese society, especially among social conservatives. Corruption, financial scams, fake food, social distrust, are seen as evidence of moral corruption. Individualism and the pursuit of profit are often blamed for these. But such discourses often overlook their benefits.

Today, the CCP is trying to regain its moral leadership by recasting the remnants of the old moral order through the Core Socialist Values (社会主义核心价值观). These are the values of “prosperity”, “civility” and “harmony”; the social values of “freedom”, “equality”, “justice” and the “rule of law”; and the individual values of “patriotism”, “dedication”, “integrity” and “friendship”.

Old heroes, like Lei Feng, have made somewhat of a comeback in the 2010s. In March 2012, the General Office of the CCP Central Committee issued a guidance document on learning from Lei Feng《关于深入开展学雷锋活动的意见》, stating that:

To carry out activities studying Lei Feng under the new situation is highly significant. We must vigorously carry forward the spirit of Lei Feng to stimulate people's enthusiasm for ideological and moral construction, advocate a new style of civilisation, correct moral failures, correct the lack of integrity, improve the moral level of society, guide people traditional virtues of the Chinese nation, practice socialist moral code, and create good social morals. We must carry forward the spirit of the nation and the spirit of the times, to promote the construction of the core socialist value system, the striving spirit of the nation; and for the cadres and masses of will and strength to build a moderately prosperous society, and to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.


This is an example of recasting old heroes to the needs of the “new era”. Except that heroes such as Lei Feng have lost some of their appeals. This perhaps explains why in recent years the propaganda system has been creating new heroes instead of only reinforcing the old ones.

Who are these new heroes, you may ask? They are the grassroots cadres on the forefront of poverty alleviation; they are China’s astronauts; they are patriotic captains of industry from the past and present; they are the frontline medical staff fighting COVID; and they are the “martyrs” who died fighting Indian troops in the Galwan Valley.

Like Lei Feng, these new heroes are patriotic to the nation and loyal to the Party. But unlike Lei Feng, they are more suited to the sensibilities of Xi’s new era.

4. Uyghur genocide

A new report by the US-based Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy concludes that China’s ongoing treatment of Uyghurs constitutes genocide under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Genocide Convention).

This report is one of the first non-government legal examinations applying the Genocide Convention to Beijing’s conduct in Xinjiang with contributions from 33 experts, including specialists in law, China studies, and Xinjiang.

Through the evaluation of publicly available information, the report concludes that Beijing is in breach of each and every one of the five prohibitions listed in Article II of the Genocide Convention:

Article II

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with

intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as


(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its

physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In short, under Article II, there are two requirements for conducts to constitute genocide under international law. First, the conduct needs to be carried out with the “intention to destroy...a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. Second, the conduct falls within one or more of the categories listed.

On intent, the report cites as evidence high-level statement and general plan by Beijing, including the 2014-launched “People’s War on Terror” and the use of dehumanising language targeting Uyghurs in the context of so-called “counter-terror” (e.g., “wipe them out completely,” “round up everyone who should be rounded up,” “break their roots, break their connections”).

In addition, it cites a pattern of state conduct and policy that have destroyed Uyghur communities and culture, including:

  1. Government-mandated homestays where Han cadres reside in Uyghur homes as monitors, leading to the fracturing of family bonds;
  2. Mass detention of Uyghurs in internment camps;
  3. Mass birth-prevention strategy targeting Uyghur women, including with forced sterilisation, abortions and IUD placements;
  4. Forcible transfer of Uyghur children to state-run facilities, especially in cases where both parents are held in internment camps;
  5. Eradication of Uyghur identity, community, and domestic life by destroying Uyghur education, architecture, and religious and sacred sites.
  6. Selective targeting of Uyghur intellectuals, and community and cultural leaders.

The evidence that the latest report is based on is not new. Since 2017, we have seen a trickle, followed by a torrent, of information about Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang and its effects on Uyghurs and other minority peoples. There is very little doubt at this point that Beijing has, and still is, engaged in a systematic campaign of surveillance, oppression, and cultural destruction in Xinjiang.

So far, three countries (the US, Canada, and the Netherlands) have characterised Beijing’s ongoing campaign against the Uyghurs as amounting to genocide. This number will likely rise as awareness and political pressure builds.

Legally, the other 151 signatories of the Genocide Convention have a responsibility to act to prevent and punish China’s alleged genocide against the Uyghurs. However, the Genocide Convention does not list specific penalties or punishments.

In cases involving alleged genocides in the past, such as in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, special international criminal tribunals have been set up by the UN Security Council. Given that China is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it will certainly veto any resolution to establish a tribunal on its conduct in Xinjiang.

Despite the limits of international law, there are a number of things countries around the world can do. First, countries should explicitly characterise Beijing’s conduct as “genocide” if they believe the evidence supports this allegation.

Second, they should try to influence Beijing’s cost-benefit calculus by raising the cost of human rights abuses. This means prioritising human rights relative to other interests, such as diplomatic relations and economic interests.

Third, they should be consistent in their advocacy for human rights — both at home and abroad — by preventing violations by themselves and calling out all abuses.

Fourth, they should give refuge to those who have escaped from Xinjiang, and other places where human rights violations are occurring.

China Story

  • Bruce Shen, China’s Defiant Local Newspapers: China’s media censorship has repeatedly made headlines over the last year for restricting information about the COVID-19 outbreak. While many might dismiss China’s news media as servants of power, such pessimism belies the fact that China’s local newspapers have been pushing the boundary of censorship and challenging the official narrative. These local newspapers’ works are of particular relevance today, as China’s central government increasingly encroaches on the press by setting rules on what’s allowed and not allowed.


This week, we look at sources on Beijing’s ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang: