Signs of hope

As an environmental activist in the late 80’s I was part of a small group who opposed pesticide use on city lawns. It was called People Against Addicted Lawns PAALs.

We organized events, to see how many people we could sign a no pesticide pledge. We also made presentations to the various city councils through out the region.

Because Kanata, Nepean, Ottawa and a dozen other municipalities all had local governments they were approachable. We made the rounds and succeeded in numerous cities to get pesticide use banned.

I remember at the city council meeting in Kanata a nurse named Judy Spence and myself made our pitch and every person on council made a connection between pesticide use and the cancers that were in thier famiies. The bylaw was passed.

Judy was estatic, I was depressed. Nothing we said made a difference the people had to expierience the pain personally to connect the dots. We are not as smart as we think we are.

And so it is in China today.

For generations of Chinese parents, the success of their children has long been one of their most important goals in life — and they are known to be willing to make great sacrifices for it.

And so when a Shanghai family refused to be taken from their home into government quarantine during the city’s sixth week of lockdown, a police officer warned them with what he thought would be a powerful threat to bring them to heel — their children’s future.

“If you don’t obey the orders from the city government, you will be punished, and the punishment will affect three generations in your family,” the hazmat-suited police officer said, pointing his finger at the camera in a video posted on Chinese social media.

“We are the last generation, thank you,” a young man, who is not seen in the video, replied adamantly, in an apparent suggestion he is not planning to have any kids.

Carrying on the family line has long been a filial duty in traditional Chinese culture. But in today’s China, not having children — or delaying it — has become a form of soft resistance and silent protest against what many see as the disappointing reality they live in, with deep-rooted structural problems stemming from a system that they have little power to change.

Over the past decade, an increasing number of Chinese millennials have delayed — or outright rejected — marriage and childbirth, as they confront high work pressure, skyrocketing property prices, rising education costs and discrimination against mothers in the workplace.

The Chinese government is worried. For decades, it had strictly enforced a one-child policy that forced millions of women to abort pregnancies deemed illegal by the state. But as China’s birthrate plummeted, demographers warned of a looming population crisis.

Beijing scrapped the one-child policy in 2016 and relaxed it further last year to allow couples to have three children, with local governments churning out a flurry of propaganda slogans and financial incentives to encourage more births — but the birthrate has continued to nosedive.

Some officials and policy advisers have appeared tone-deaf to young people’s demands. Last month, a law professor and delegate to the Jinzhou municipal People’s Congress in Hubei province suggested that in order to promote marriage and childbirth, the media should reduce or avoid reporting on “independent women” and the “double-income-no-kids (DINK) lifestyle,” because they are not in line with the country’s “mainstream values.” The suggestion drew a backlash online.

As the pandemic drags on, the sense of disenchantment among many of the country’s younger generation has only grown.

The increasingly frequent and stringent lockdowns — and the chaos and tragedies that arose from them — have made citizens realize how fragile their rights are in the face of a state apparatus that brooks no dissent and a callous bureaucracy trained to take orders from above with little flexibility.

That is especially so in Shanghai, which is reeling from seven weeks of stringent lockdown. In the country’s wealthiest and most glamorous city, residents have been subject to widespread food shortages, lack of medical care and forced quarantine in spartan makeshift facilities. Authorities initially separated young children from their parents in isolation — and only reversed course after a public outcry.

“Who is willing to have children when things have come to this? Who dares to have children?” asked a user on Weibo.

“Your reign ends with me. And the suffering you have caused also ends with me,” said another.