Will The Handmaid’s Tale be staged in Hong Kong one day?

“Well, even if things develop to the point where Beijing would force Hong Kong women to give birth, at least we’d be left in peace – for by that time, we should already be at the tail end of our childbearing years,” I said to my former female classmates in jest.

I made this remark after China’s Premier Li Keqiang called attention to the imperative of “achieving a satisfactory birth rate” in the work report he delivered to the country’s legislature last month.  Following Li’s lead, a plethora of mainland social media posts rushed to offer proposals on how to realize this cause.

A lawyer surnamed Zhao advocated replicating history in all seriousness: “China should make singlehood a crime. In the Jin Dynasty (266-420), to bring about a post-war baby boom, the authorities would force a husband on any girl who was still single at 17; in the South-North Dynasty (420-589), if a girl remained unmarried at 15, her family would be put in prison.”

Another netizen posted an undated photo showing a speaker warning the officials of Deyang (a small city in Sichuan) that a measure of their loyalty to the party rests on whether they’ll take the lead in having a second child. He didn’t mince words: “In place of endless empty talk, why not walk your talk and take a roll in the hay?” (說一千道一萬,不如床上幹一幹)

Then there was this post that’s less sensational but no less disturbing: a single Hangzhou woman in her thirties was denied the right to purchase an apartment. The reason: only the married were eligible to be owners of that property.

For a regime whose legitimacy hinges on its ability to deliver prosperity to its people, Beijing’s fears that China will grow old before it grows rich are warranted. Not only did the relaxation of the one-child policy in 2016 fail to unleash a baby boom; the country’s birth rate has been on a steady decline since 2017, with births in 2020 plunging by15% on-year due to the CCP virus and weakening economy. By 2050, over 30% of mainlanders will exceed 65 years of age (compared to 10% in 2014); China’s labour pool is slated to shrink by almost a quarter over the same period.

Which brings me to my concern that CCP will use draconian measures to increase births in both mainland and Hong Kong. If it does, it won’t be the first communist regime to do so. Think Romania: in the 1960s, its dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, keen to create an abundant labour force, banned contraception and abortion for women under 45 who hadn’t already given birth to four offsprings (the quota was later increased to five). In addition, couples over 25 years of age who didn’t have children saw their wages cut by 30%.

Women bore the brunt of Ceausescu’s decree. Romania was already a country where they sometimes had to wake up at 4 am to queue for milk, and now, the state was forcing them to give birth without providing them with the means to feed the extra mouths. An obstetrician who was active at the time lamented, “when I delivered a baby, I held it in my arms and showed it to God, and He and I were happy. The mother, however, started cursing it and telling me to throw it away.” Between 1965 and 1989, over 9000 women died from illegal abortions. Some couples simply abstained from sex.

Eventually, an estimated half a million children ended up at state orphanages because their parents lacked the resources to care for them. It was only after the fall of communism did western media set foot in these institutions and filmed the full horror of Ceausescu’s birth mandate: scores of caged children, their limbs crooked and heads shaven, sitting in their urine and eating their meagre portions with their hands – no one ever taught them how to use a fork. Rarely has there been a grimmer picture of communism’s capacity to strip humans of their dignity.

You know the spectre of communism is hovering over Hong Kong when the Lam administration is exhibiting Ceausescu’s as well as CCP’s style of governance, one that mainlanders have summed up succinctly in a verse: A light bulb goes on in the head (ruler comes up with a policy on a whim); a pat on the back (ruler congratulates himself on his policy);  a slap in the face (his policy implodes); a bolt for the door (his shirks responsibility ) (一拍腦袋有了;一拍胸脯定了;一拍大腿壞了;一拍屁股跑了). Isn’t this a fitting characterization of Carrie Lam’s manner of dealing with issues, from the extradition law saga to the city’s countermeasures against the CCP virus? I may be joking when I deemed myself exempt from Beijing’s population-boosting schemes, but the issue is no laughing matter. Now that Hong Kong’s election system has been crushed by Beijing, even those uninformed (and therefore gullible) housewives at the notoriously pro-CCP chatroom Baby Kingdom may soon be able to connect the dots and change their minds about the regime, for they may soon learn what women in communist Romania – not to mention mainland women who had suffered under the one-child policy – knew all too well: what happens at the ballot box is connected to what happens in their wombs.

I'm Michelle Ng (吳若琦), an Oxford-educated bilingual political writer and English writing coach based in Hong Kong. I'm currently an English columnist for Apple Daily and Ming Pao, and a Chinese columnist for 眾新聞. I have written for Hong Kong Free Press, The Wall Street Journal and The Vancouver Sun. 

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