In May 2021, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) unveiled new plans to boost flagging birth rates and reverse population aging, raising the official limit on the number of children per couple from two to three.
But the people who do most of the mental, physical and emotional work of child-bearing and childcare — Chinese women — may not step up to solve the government’s population problems as readily as CCP leader Xi Jinping is hoping.
“I can’t have another kid. Raising one child is like putting your money in a shredder,” a service industry employee surnamed Li from the central city of Changsha told RFA. “There’s no way I can have another one.”
Qiu Xiaojia, a millennial from the eastern city of Hangzhou, has been married for three years, and thinks even one child is out of the question.
“We have bought a home now, and the monthly mortgage payments are higher than my monthly salary,” Qiu said. “So where will the money to have kids come from?”
“I can’t even afford one kid, let alone three,” she said.
In the southwestern megacity of Chongqing, Ma Jing says she already works a six-day week at a tech company, and she and her husband have no plans to reproduce any time soon.
“I live from paycheck to paycheck, and still rely heavily on my parents,” Ma said. “The property I live in belongs to them, I drive my mother’s car, and I still can’t save money.”
“This policy may allow me to have three kids, but I won’t be doing that; I haven’t the means.”
Li Dan, an older millennial based in Shanghai, says she could afford it, but she still won’t be having them.
“The main reason for me, an older woman of child-bearing age, has nothing to do with money,” Li said. “The main reason is that I’m a single woman.”
Raising kids in China is a costly business, with parents stretched to find money for even one child’s education. While state-run schools don’t charge tuition until the 10th year of compulsory education, they increasingly demand nominal payments of various kinds, as well as payments for food and extracurricular activities.
Xi has said that “education and guidance should be provided to promote marriage and family values among marriage-age young people,” with the Politburo promising tax and housing incentives in the pipeline for couples wanting to have children.
Other promised support measures include improvements to prenatal and postnatal care, a universal childcare service, and reduced education costs for families.
China’s fertility rate stood at around 1.3 children per woman in 2020, compared with the 2.1 children per woman needed for the population to replace itself.
Yet the three-child policy is something of a volte-face, coming as it does just five years after the CCP scrapped the one-child policy, which gave rise to decades of human rights abuses, including forced late-term abortions and sterilizations, as well as widespread monitoring of women’s fertility by officials.
“The policies are pretty meaningless without an idea of how they will be implemented and how much money the government will need to spend,” Wang Zheng, associate professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan, told RFA.
“A core problem is that we have yet to see any government documentation reviewing the mistakes of the one-child policy,” Wang said. “Without such a process of reflection, how will they ensure that they don’t make a huge mistake in reproductive public policy?”
There are concerns that, as authoritarian means were used to police women’s reproductive systems and limit births during the one-child policy, they could equally well be used to get them to have more children, according to Georgetown University Asian law researcher Zhao Sile.
“What is worrying about China is that it is not a democratic society, so it may not adjust its policies according to the actual needs of society,” Zhao told RFA. “Instead, it may use authoritarian means [to implement them].”
“The next step will depend on whether the country adopts more compulsory policies on childbirth,” Zhao said. “For example, will they link it to bonuses and promotions?”
“Will they restrict access to contraception and abortion?”
‘Authoritarian, patriarchal system’
At the end of June, the Statistics Bureau in Hunan’s Yueyang city issued a directive calling on officials to encourage couples to give birth, shortening the distance between the second and third child, prompting online criticism that the government regarded women as breeding stock.
“Such measures will only make women more resistant to childbirth,” Zhao said. “China’s authoritarian and patriarchal system is coming into serious conflict with the more individualistic evolution of modern women.”
Qiu, whose employer forced her to sign a commitment not to get pregnant in the next three years, agreed.
“I feel that the barriers that prevent [women] from seeking a better future are getting higher and higher,” she said. “I feel that anxiety every day of my life.”
Official Chinese surveys have shown that nearly 60 percent of Chinese women have encountered questions about their marital status and childbirth intentions during the job application process, while recruitment ads frequently specify a preference for male candidates, or for women who are done having kids.
“In the past few decades, with economic growth, resources have fallen disproportionately in the hands of men,” New York State University professor Dong Yige told RFA.
Along with that comes the stereotypical expectation that women should be good wives and mothers, encouraged and endorsed by Xi Jinping since 2013.
“All of this stuff is once more a part of mainstream discourse on gender,” Wang Zheng said, adding that there will naturally be resistance to this attempt from Chinese women, despite the CCP’s attempts to stamp out the country’s grassroots feminist movement.
“It can’t be done. Feminism has always been a decentralized and democratic movement,” Wang said. “It’s not like a political party or an organization.”
“It springs up like the grass, like endless wildfires,” Wang said. “As long as any woman has any kind of ideological awareness, they will sound like feminists.”
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.