Professor slammed after suggesting social media will make China childless

Society & Culture

Young Chinese women don’t want to have babies, and one scholar blames social media. Chinese social media users were not amused.

A woman uses her mobile phone in a street in Shanghai, China. Oriental Image via Reuters Connect.

China is getting old, there are not enough babies to ensure continued economic growth, young people don’t want to start families or have more than one baby because it is too expensive, and most of them grew up as only children because of government policies. Faced with this demographic crisis, Beijing has made it clear that it wants couples to have more kids. But whatever it’s doing, it’s not working. 

Data released by the National Statistics Bureau shows that the country’s birth rate plummeted for a fifth consecutive year to hit a new record low in 2021, and surveys regularly reveal that a growing number of young people, especially urban, professional women, are ruling marriage out.

Why can’t Beijing persuade people to have more babies? Lǐ Tíng 李婷, a sociology professor at Renmin University of China, who heads up the school’s Family and Gender Research Center, has some theories. In a new study (in Chinese) published this month, Li suggests that usage of certain Chinese social media sites, such as Weibo and Douban, negatively affects how female college students think about marriage and having children. 

Her proposition, however, was poorly received by internet users, who criticized the study for using scapegoating social media, while missing the bigger picture of how the government has been failing Chinese women on multiple fronts, making them increasingly antagonistic toward Beijing’s pro-natalist push. 

The study, titled “A report on university students’ views on marriage and having kids,” was discussed at an academic seminar on April 14 in Beijing, where scholars from various institutions shared their research on how college students approach dating and family life “in the age of the internet.”

For her research, Li surveyed nearly 10,000 students from over 30 universities across the country. In general, Li found that the level of willingness to get married was higher than she expected. Over 61% of the respondents expressed “an explicit desire to find a spouse” whereas only 7% of them were completely against the idea. When asked about why they wanted to be single and child-free, male students pointed to financial insecurity, while their female counterparts cited the prioritization of career goals as their primary reason.

Fashion and gaming lead to marriage, but social media, fiction, and anime cause childlessness?

One aspect of Li’s study is how the participants’ internet behavior affects their attitudes toward marriage and children, and this is where the controversy emerged. After analyzing all the survey responses, Li wrote that heavy use of the internet among college students appeared to lower their desire for marriage and kids. 

Li claims that different social media sites have distinct effects. Regular use of Weibo, which is roughly the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, leads to more negative views on marriage and forming families. Douban, a Reddit-like social network that started as a forum to discuss literature, music, and movies, had a similar effect. In contrast, those who spent a lot of time on Xiaohongshu, a fashion and lifestyle ecommerce platform whose name means “little red book,” tended to see marriage and kids favorably.

Li also has theories about user engagement with “subcultures.” She says that those who liked competitive video gaming, also known as esports, were more likely to view marriage positively, while those who watched anime or read web novels a lot tended to feel the opposite way about marriage. 

Li doesn’t draw any inflammatory conclusions from her findings, nor does she propose any policies restricting college students’ screen time. But news about her research has nonetheless sparked strong reactions on Weibo. Critics say that it’s unfair to portray social media and harmless hobbies in a negative light in a study investigating China’s low birth rates, while ignoring the real factors that directly affect young women’s decisions on marriage and parenthood. 

“It’s totally reasonable” for women to not want babies

“This report is straight-up garbage. There is so much negative news about women’s issues like gender-based violence and systematic discrimination on Weibo and Douban almost every single day. Female users of these two platforms are resistant to marriage and having kids not because of the platforms themselves, but because of how frequently they are exposed to negative content on these sites,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese). Another one wrote to Li, “There are a host of issues that remain to be solved. High housing prices, high living costs, 996, divorce cooling-off period, female trafficking, just to name a few. How about you divert your attention to studies that will make a real impact?”

Some detractors also took issue with the premise of Li’s study, saying that by identifying China’s baby bust as a problem that needs to be “fixed,” her research has joined a larger body of academic work that put the government’s priority of maintaining a massive population above women’s individual freedom to make decisions about their bodies and their lives. “As Chinese women get more educated and their financial status continues to grow, it’s natural for them to want to have more agency over their lives. It’s totally reasonable for many to feel that motherhood is no longer a necessity. Why do these researchers keep identifying it as a problem and want to find solutions,” a Weibo user said (in Chinese). 

Previously, similar responses were given to a study by Zēng Díyáng 曾迪洋, a researcher on public policy at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics. Zeng’s work explored how working overtime affects individuals’ willingness to reproduce. “The entire situation is incredibly depressing. I feel like a cow surrounded by breeders who are discussing whether to play Mozart or Chopin to make my meat more tender,” a Weibo user wrote back then in response to Zeng’s study. 

This mismatch of attitudes also played out last year when Wú Xiūmíng 吴修明, a senior researcher at a government-funded think tank, called for authorities to ratchet up the country’s marriage rates by encouraging the migration of urban single women to the countryside, where millions of unmarried men are looking for brides. Back then, his suggestion was pilloried by female internet users, who said they were perfectly fine with being single and would never compromise their standards for the sake of getting married.