8 min read

Why Are Putin and Xi Worried About Population Decline?

Why Are Putin and Xi Worried About Population Decline?
Photo by Bran Liang / Unsplash

After decades of worrying about the impending “population bomb,” governments around the world are now facing the exact opposite problem: population decline. 

Most countries have fertility rates below replacement levels, and not just in the developed world. India and China are below the replacement level, too. Although it might have some environmental benefits, population decline could also lead to a host of problems, including slower economic growth and an aging population without enough caregivers. Even high levels of immigration may not solve these economic problems.

FilterLabs CEO Jonathan Teubner was recently quoted in a Wall Street Journal report on population decline in Russia. The birth rate in Russia has recovered from its post-Soviet nadir, but it remains below replacement levels, at 1.49 children per woman. FilterLabs has been looking at sentiment on the subject, and as Teubner told the WSJ, “Over the course of 2023, we found that people were speaking more positively about postponing a family.”

For this newsletter, we decided to dig into this topic further in order to find out what Russians have been saying about family formation this year. To do this, we used Talisman, our data platform that gathers and analyzes millions of online articles and social media posts. We decided to broaden the search, looking at the discourse surrounding fertility in China as well as Russia. What were people saying in the press and in online social discussion about birth rates and family formation? Were the conversations different between the two countries, or were common themes emerging? 


Using Talisman’s findings, FilterLabs analyzed stories in the Russian media about postponing a family. Sentiment in these stories remained relatively stable over the past few months, and positive:

When we dug into individual articles, we found that many stories focused on the benefits that parents could earn for having families, especially large families. In Kaliningrad, 16,000 parents were receiving large-family payments; family benefit programs were expanding in the Urals and Tartistan; and in the Belgorod region the benefits for parents whose children had celiac disease were being extended up to 23 years. A company was promising to give away 200,000 rubles to a lucky pair of newlyweds. The underlying message was clear and positive: having lots of children won’t ruin your finances. 

Along with the carrot, there was a stick. One article chided young people for not having children, especially women. Another headline included an offensive term for women who “will not give enough births.” The author speculated about what a low birth rate would eventually mean for the Russian military.

Indeed, the military consequences of low fertility was a common theme, although sometimes indirectly. For example, the sentiment bump starting April 22 corresponds to a spate of stories about United Russia’s ambitious child support initiative. There were announcements of new leisure centers, health care for children, and organized field trips. Not coincidentally, the new programs were all in regions bordering Ukraine. The programs had mottos like “We Don’t Abandon Our Own,” assuring the population that children would be taken care of, even if their parents died in the war. 

Family formation was also a common topic on Russian social media:

Here, too, sentiment was relatively stable. On social media there were a few stories on government initiatives (like the construction of childrens’ technology parks in Stavropol), but Talisman also uncovered posts and messages about people’s personal experiences with the family benefits system. There was tension between people receiving the benefits and people who were not. When two families in Tara received housing certificates, one commenter wrote: “I’m happy for them, but we stood in line for 10 years, the period is over and that’s it, now we’re building at our own expense.”

One woman who was receiving a large-family benefit bristled at the idea that she and her husband were lazy, or having children for money. “There was a question about the benefits,” she wrote, “I get 100% for three children. We both work on paper at minimum wage (like many). My husband works part-time as best he can. … So who says that all those with many children are lazy and drunkards, I assure you that not all of us are like that. There are more lazy people and drunkards among those with few children.”

Under her post, another commentator had replied, “We are a large family. We do not work for minimum wages (like many), but for an honest salary …. Therefore, we have to earn extra money as self-employed people. The salary is still below the subsistence level, but we don’t qualify for a social passport because of the property. That's why we don't receive any benefits. We've never been on vacation. We are in so much debt!! So try being honest first, without deceiving the state, then brag!”

So there are some discrepancies between news and social media discussions of family formation. The mainstream media trumpets the government benefits, but there seem to be many who cannot access them, and resent those who do. 


In addition to its analysis of Russia and the Middle East, FilterLabs is now able to collect and analyze hard-to-get information from China.

China’s population decline has the potential to be even steeper than Russia’s. China’s current birth rate is only one live birth per woman. The low birthrate is clearly worrying China’s political class, as President Xi Jingpin has asked his officials to help the country reach an “appropriate” birth rate.

In the time period Talisman analyzed, the sentiment in mainstream media stories about starting a family was stable:

Sentiment scores in stories about starting a family were also quite high. While absolute sentiment scores should be interpreted with caution—shifts in sentiment generally being the more telling indicator—such a consistently high score suggests that discourse around family formation is generally positive.

But despite the overall positivity, a closer look at the articles and commentary revealed that the low birthrate is already starting to have social and economic effects. There were multiple stories about a certain street in Changsha that had a population of 30,000, but only 17 births in the first quarter of 2024. Another story reported that the number of kindergartens in the country has decreased by 14,800 over the past year, with an average of 40 kindergartens closing every day. Obstetrics practices and units were closing across China. And firms were already reporting furious competition for talent, a possible preview of the economic stress to come.  

What was to be done? A demographer suggested that even a “two-child policy” would not be enough to reach Xi’s “appropriate” birth rate. The demographer suggested loosening household registration rules and giving parents tax cuts. Colleges and universities were already rewarding professors 50,000 yuan for having children, but in contrast to Russia, there was very little discussion of government benefits for families. 

There was widespread frustration over how hard it was to start a family. The costs loomed large. The costs included not only having children but also making enough money to impress a potential spouse, buy a house, a car, etc. Costs were not only an issue in urban areas. On the contrary, an investigative report in rural China found that a single marriage could put a whole family into debt: “In recent years, the issue of high-priced betrothal gifts has frequently attracted attention. Reporters have found that the comprehensive cost of marriage, including betrothal gifts, has risen in some rural areas, with some men spending millions on marriage. The soaring cost of marriage customs, including betrothal gifts, not only violates the original meaning of etiquette and customs, objectifies personality and love, but also exacerbates marriage anxiety and triggers a series of social problems such as ‘fear of marriage’ and ‘not getting married.’”  

Many of the same issues appeared on Chinese social media, where sentiment was lower and more volatile:

A popular topic on social media was assisted reproduction. There were generally positive stories on surrogacy, egg banks, and IVF treatments. 

In general, however, the obstacles to family formation were not technological or biological. They were social. Parents reported that they were urging their children to get married, but their children said they couldn’t. Younger adults, in turn, wondered how they could both support a family and provide for their parents in old age. One post pointed to the fate of an anti-fraud crusader who had a breakdown on a live broadcast, saying, “A family can't become a family, a career can't become a career, I am scolded every day, and my children are scolded with me.” The obligations of work and family life seemed to be too much for many. 

There was also tension between the sexes. Frustrated posters wanted to know why young men didn’t want to get married, why women in their 30s and 40s were still single, why older women were still alone, and why eligible men weren’t showing up for dating events. One post contrasted “normal feminism” that emphasized “equality, independent personality, and equal respect and distribution,” with “extreme feminism,” which “devalues ​​and hates all men and normal marriages, is extremely narcissistic, … [and] uses the gold digger philosophy and precious relationships to squeeze men's property.” 

Yes, this was all on social media (where the battle of the sexes is always raging), but it was hard to avoid the feeling that men and women in China were frustrated not only with the economic situation, but also with each other. 


Both Russia and China are facing population declines. But by analyzing millions of mainstream and social media articles, FilterLabs’ Talisman data platform found important differences between them.

Russia already has government benefits for large families, and the government is clearly spending money to improve childhood care and education. The government seemed to be motivated by military concerns. Simply put, the Kremlin needs soldiers. Given the incredibly high casualty rates in the Russia-Ukraine war, it will need a lot of them. A low birth rate today could mean military problems in under 20 years. 

The military issue was notably absent in China, both in mainstream and social media sources. Instead, people emphasized how difficult it was to start a family. It wasn’t just the price of pregnancy, birth, and childcare that was deterring people. Ordinary Chinese people were having trouble finding attractive spouses and pushing off marriage into their 30s and 40s, significantly reducing their chance of having children. 

Russia and China are both facing a demographic crisis, but while Russia’s may be more pressing, China’s is perhaps more serious in the long run. Russia is already offering generous financial incentives to have large families, and it could conceivably reverse some of its demographic decline by not entering wars of choice. China, however, has established a strong small-family norm, and there are cultural and economic factors militating against marriage and family formation. Social norms are even more difficult to change than economic conditions. It is hard to imagine Xi changing them fast enough to reach an “appropriate” birth rate. 

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FilterLabs is a data analytics company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We leverage natural language processing and tailored data modeling to scour and analyze global online communications and deliver hyper-local insights. Learn more at filterlabs.ai.