Birth rates and cyberbullying are among the hot topics ahead of Two Sessions 2023

Birth rates and cyberbullying are among the hot topics ahead of Two Sessions 2023

Meanwhile, the delegates — which include local government officials, academics, business executives, celebrities, and other celebrated figures — are given the chance to put forth policy proposals on issues they are most concerned about. For ordinary people in the country, this is one of the few ways they can have their voices heard at high-level government meetings.

As the representatives descended on the capital this week, several common themes emerged from the proposals they had revealed to the media. Below, we sum up a few hot topics that provoked strong reactions on Chinese social media.


Low birth rates

In light of China’s collapsing birth rates and newly shrinking population, a few delegates focused their proposals on ways to increase people’s interest in childbearing.

In order to ease parents’ financial pressures, Zhào Dōnglíng 赵冬苓, an NPC delegate and screenwriter from Shandong, called for the government to issue maternity allowances to all women, especially those who have no access to family-supportive benefits in the workplace, such as freelancers, farmers, and stay-at-home mothers. Considering education expense as “the most important obstacle to promoting birthrates,” Gān Huátián 甘华田, a CPPCC member and a professor of medicine at Sichuan University, suggested that China should provide free education from kindergarten to high school for a family’s third child onwards.

But financial worry isn’t the only reason putting off young Chinese from forming a family, as Gan pointed out. Because child-rearing responsibilities are still primarily shouldered by mothers in China, women with professional ambitions tend to delay marriage and entry into parenthood in fear of losing momentum in the workplace. To reduce negative implications of child-bearing for women, Gan encouraged officials to strengthen protection of pregnant women from discrimination at work and extend paternity leave for fathers. To help parents better manage work and family, Lǐ Jūn 李君, an NPC delegate from Sichuan, proposed public child care subsidized by the government and the establishment of more daycare facilities at residential complexes.

Removing physical obstacles to having babies is another birth-boosting measure that appeared in multiple proposals. CPPCC member and fertility specialist Xú Cóngjiàn 徐丛剑 said he would propose allowing unmarried women to access egg freezing, which is currently limited only to those with medical needs or in marriage. A few other delegates, including Gan, recommended the government subsidize assisted fertility procedures such as in vitro fertilization (IVF), but surrogacy seems to remain a taboo topic after the Zhèng Shuǎng 郑爽 scandal in 2021.

CPPCC member Jiǎng Shèngnán 蒋胜男, a screenwriter and researcher at Wenzhou University, believes that long work hours are associated with the decreases in fertility. Her proposal focused on China’s demanding work culture, which she said needs to be radically changed to allow more flexibility and better work-life balance for young workers.

Cyberbullying and safe online spaces for minors

Cyberbullying has long been a problem in China, which has more than one billion internet users. But two recent events just moved the issue to the front of the public consciousness and added a sense of urgency to addressing it.

In the summer of 2022, Zheng Linghua, 23, was abused online after posting photos and videos of herself proudly sharing her acceptance letter to graduate school with her bedridden grandfather, who had been hospitalized for nine months. Zheng donned pink hair in the posts, and she was quickly picked apart by strangers for looking like a “nightclub girl.” The incessant bullying caused her serious emotional distress, and eventually led her to take her own life in January.

A few weeks later, in another high-profile case spotlighting the harmful effects of cyberbullying, Sun Fanbao, a short-video influencer who rose to fame in after documenting his 4,000-kilometer trip to Tibet from Shandong on a tractor, ended his life after suffering months-long malicious attacks online.

In the wake of these two events, Lǐ Dōngshēng 李东生, an NPC delegate and the founder of a Chinese electronics company, urged policymakers to introduce laws specifically targeting cyberbullying. He also encouraged social media services to improve mechanisms to respond to complaints and keep their users safe.

Because children and teenagers are particularly susceptible to cyber harassment and other harmful impacts of internet use, NPC delegate and lawyer Fāng Yàn 方燕 took aim at underage influencers in her motion, arguing that the government should step up its supervision of content made by or featuring minors.

ChatGPT, the groundbreaking artificial intelligence chatbot that’s all the rage at the moment, appears to have made its way to the Two Sessions. In an interview with the China Youth Daily, CPPCC member Zhōu Yuán 周源, the founder and CEO of the Quora-like Chinese platform Zhihu, suggested that to protect minors from “inappropriate content,” an age restriction should be applied to users of ChatGPT and other similar technologies. However, Zhou’s proposal was brutally ridiculed on Weibo, where commenters reminded him that ChatGPT has never been officially available in China and the government had ordered domestic tech firms to remove workarounds allowing access to the U.S.-based service. “Is this delegate from America?” a Weibo user mocked.

Older adult employment

China’s nearly 1 billion working-age population peaked in 2014 and has dipped continuously since then. With its shrinking population, China is projected to have a workforce size of less than 400 million by the end of this century, according to UN data last July. This has widespread implications for emerging markets, according to experts. For a country that has long relied on its vast workforce as a key driver of economic growth, the shortage of workers is bad news.

One way to alleviate the problem is to encourage retirees to take up jobs again and keep aging workers employed as long as possible. While life-expectancy has risen, China’s retirement age has remained unchanged for more than four decades, at 60 for men and 55 for women white-collar workers.

The government has for some years been hinting that workers would need to delay their retirement, despite strong opposition from the public. Just last month, when Chinese investment bank Citic Securities released a research report forecasting that the delay of the retirement age will be announced this year and will begin in 2025, the document was met with an outpouring of negative comments, underscoring how sensitive and unpopular the proposal is.

Lǔ Xiǎomíng 鲁晓明, a CPPCC member and law professor at Guangdong University of Finances and Economics, believes that reform is inevitable. In his proposal, Lu put forward an idea of “mismatch employment” (错位就业 cuòwèi jiùyè), arguing that due to the dwindling physical ability of order adults, the government should create more job opportunities for aging workers that require less physical activity and better utilize their experience. Lu’s proposal also tackles ageism in hiring, which he said has been preventing many older adults from re-entering the workforce.

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