where have all the young folks gone…

no time passing… The melody is Pete Seeger’s, but the context is Shenzhen. Last night I was talking with friends, older friends of many years who have lived in Shenzhen since the early 1990s. We ended up talking about China’s population crisis and how it has been manifest in Shenzhen as the aging of menial laborers, the ongoing removal of affordable housing stock as urban villages are razed, and the flight of young families to cities like Changsha, which are actively trying to attract young people using methods that range from housing policy to social media campaigns to create a hip and friendly city image.

The current situation in Nantou illustrates how these issues come together on the ground. The sanitation crews for the area comprise older people, many who had joined their children in Shenzhen to take care of grandchildren, but once the grandchildren started attending school full-time found themselves both with time on their hands and in need of supplemental income. Many of these crew members are past the age of retirement and ineligible for retirement benefits in the city, making them a vulnerable workforce. In terms of affordable housing, Vanke has upgraded many of the handshake buildings on the two main streets in Nantou, replacing family housing with transitional rentals for singletons. Indeed, last time I went to Nantou, the rates for upgraded housing stock was 5,500 yuan a month, while older housing was still priced between 2,000 to 3,000 yuan, depending on location and size. Moreover, over two years of zero-Covid enforcement means that many mom and pop shops have closed up with generational implications. On the one hand, older entrepreneurs have lost accumulated capital and income. On the other hand, that wealth can no longer be passed on to children who may have been raised in Shenzhen, but do not have city hukou.

So yes, restructuring with a vengeance.

Some background information on the population situation:

Several years ago, on the MapPorn reddit, Spaceman_Jalego posted a map of China that focused on numbers and distribution. As you can see in the map below, Shenzhen lies within a territory that has roughly the population of Indonesia, about 274 million, the fourth most populous country on the planet after China (1.4 billion and change), India (just under 1.4 billion and counting), and the United States (330 million). And that’s part of the story, of course. Just the sheer numbers of human beings in China and India, relative to the rest of the world.

And what, you ask, is the rest of the story? A huge part of the story, unseen in the map is China’s changing demographic structure. Like most of the developed world, China’s birthrates have dropped below replacement levels. However, unlike natural sex-at-birth ratios the rest of the world which has a sex-at-birth ration of 106 boys to 100 girls, a cultural preference for sons has meant that China’s sex-at-birth ratio is 120 boys to 100 girls and has high as 130 boys to 100 girls in some provinces. This means, there are significantly less Chinese women of child-bearing age than could be expected from unexamined figures. Moreover, the relatively underpopulated regions of China (Nepal, the Russian pan-handle, France, and the United Kingdom) have historically supported small populations. And yes, although there was a slight bump when China legalized second children, there has been no corresponding bump since the legalization–indeed active promotion–of third children.

China’s demographic structure is, as many have publicly voiced, has a skewed gender ratio and a rapidly aging population. Clearly, it would be easy to catastrophize China’s population situation and many have. Indeed, since the release of population statistics in 2021 and more recent reports on birthrates, speculating on whether or not China’s demographic decline can sustain its rise to superpower status has become prevalent in English-language news coverage of the country (above citations, but also here, here, and here, for video analysis).

As part of its efforts to delay the effects of loosing its working population, Shenzhen is actively promoting itself as a child-friendly city. However, the irony of needing young people, but rejecting urban villages has been an ongoing theme in the city’s relationship with the villages and its migrant workforce–and yes, even white-collar workers have migrated to Shenzhen. So, the situation is complicated. But. It’s not that complicated. The bottom line seems to be: poor migrants can work here, but they aren’t welcome or encouraged to raise families in the city. Brother Nut (also here) made this painful reality viscerally palatable in his piece, Stuffed Toys in which he collected stuffed toys from children in Baishizhou, had them sign the toys, and then photographed the toys being collected by a giant claw and dumped in a pile. The action was a response to and comment on the 2019 forced evictions displaced 4000 children from their homes and classrooms.

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