Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy?

Families are now being urged to have at least two children, but it may be too late to convince parents to embrace the change

For Xu Meiru, 38, the thought of having a second child is exhausting. Her days typically begin at 5am, don’t end until 11pm, and are filled with shuttling her nine-year-old son to school, helping him with his homework, preparing meals and running an online clothing business.

“It’s hard to find time even to sleep for a few minutes in a chair,” she says, sitting in a McDonald’s while her son plays a game on a phone, the detritus of a Happy Meal in front of him.

Most tiring is the constant worry over whether she is doing enough to help him get ahead. He goes to music lessons, taekwondo classes and extra English tutoring. She spends the first week of every summer and winter break helping him prepare for the next term. Sometimes her son’s workload is so heavy that Xu does his assignments for him, using her left hand to make her writing more childlike.

Map showing where Shenyang is in China

“There are too many children and the competition is too high. If you don’t do well in school you can’t get into a good university, and then maybe you can’t get a good job in the future,” she says. She is visibly anxious when discussing the prospect of a second child, something that until three years ago would have been forbidden under Chinese law. “If we were to have another child, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the energy for them,” Xu says.

Faced with a population that is shrinking and ageing, Chinese policymakers are attempting to engineer a baby boom after more than three decades of a Malthusian family planning regime better-known as the one-child policy. Central policy planners have loosened restrictions on family sizes, and now all married couples can have two children. There is talk of the limits being dropped altogether, and amid aggressive propaganda drives, local officials are experimenting with subsidies and incentives for parents.

China’s fertility rate chart

But these efforts appear to be too little too late. Birthrates have fallen and are likely to continue to drop as parents like Xu decide against having more children. More young women are pushing back against state propaganda and family pressure, while improving education standards and income levels have delayed marriage and childbirth. Moreover, decades of the one-child policy have made single-child households the norm, experts say.

“China should have stopped the policy 28 years ago. Now it’s too late,” says Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and a longtime critic of the family planning policies.

Demographers warn that China’s population will begin to shrink in the next decade, potentially derailing the world’s second-largest economy, with a far-reaching global impact. China’s birthrate last year was at its lowest since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, with 15.23 million births, dramatically lower than the 21-23 million officials had expected.

By 2050 as much as a third of the country’s population will be made up of people over the age of 60, putting severe strain on state services and the children who bear the brunt of caring for elderly relatives.

China’s population chart now and in future

Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in China’s rust belt, the north-eastern region better-known as Dongbei which has the lowest birthrates in the country, the result of strict enforcement of family planning limits and the region’s early development. For residents in Shenyang, the largest city in Dongbei, in central Liaoning province, it’s obvious why few families are willing to have more children – the economy.

Rich in resources such as iron ore and coal, Dongbei was at the heart of the country’s heavy industry between the 1950s and 1970s. During the reform era, industries moved southward to the coastal regions, and the state-run companies that employed most Dongbei workers have struggled, causing a mass exodus to other parts of China.

“Shanghai, Guangzhou, all these cities are moving forward, but Shenyang has stayed in place. All the high-rises don’t change anything,” says Zhang Yang, 36, who works in purchasing for a local state-owned company. “Few people are having babies because the economy is so bad.”

During Dongbei’s heyday, Shenyang was the region’s economic hub, with blocks of factories lining its main street. Now those buildings have been replaced by high-rise apartments, banks and hotels while the factories have been relocated to a suburb outside the city. The new economic zone, the new home for these factories, is quiet.

China’s population increase graph

Workers in grey jumpsuits walk along the road just before noon. A sign on a taxi calls on Shenyang residents “to fight” for the rejuvenation of their city. Neighbourhoods in the old industrial sector are being torn down to make way for new buildings.

The birthrate here is especially low, at 8.79 per 1,000 women, compared with the national average of 12.43 in 2017. The city is ageing quickly – a quarter of residents were above the age of 60 in 2017, and local population experts believe the city will soon overtake Shanghai to have China’s oldest populace.

Dongbei’s struggling economy is the main reason Zhang and his wife have decided not to have another child. He has not had a wage increase in three years. When his son goes to kindergarten in a few years, he expects about half of his income will go toward his schooling and extra classes and activities.

His hope is that his son will go to university in the south of China and pursue a career and life there. “It’s not that I’m worried about Liaoning’s future. I have no hope for it at all,” Zhang says.

Birthrates in Dongbei, home to about 109 million people, have fallen steeply. The average number of children per woman was 0.9 in 2000 and 0.56 in 2015, according to Yi. That means the next generation will be a quarter of the size of the last one.

Xu Meiru with her son at McDonald’s
Xu Meiru with her son at McDonald’s in Shenyang. Photograph: Lily Kuo/The Observer

Last summer, Liaoning released a Population Development Plan, vowing to raise the province’s birthrate by “working hard to create good public opinion about having two children”. Officials promised to explore subsidies for families with two children, encourage employers to offer more services for families, and support women returning to work after giving birth.

While parents in Shenyang say they have noticed an increase in nursing facilities at shopping centres and other public spaces, they have yet to see any substantial support from the government. “For all these years, there haven’t been any policies to help. Government pledges like these are like thunder without raindrops. This is like lying to a little child,” Zhang says.

Dongbei offers an example of what is to come for the rest of the country. As an early industrial hub, the province urbanised quickly, with incomes and education levels several years ahead of the national average – factors that act as natural constraints on the birthrate, according to experts. As other parts of the country go through similar stages of urbanisation and economic growth, they are going through comparable declines.

“This is not just Dongbei but the whole country. You know what they say in economics: development is the best birth control,” says Song Limin of the Population Research Institute at Liaoning University.

Researchers believe the national rate of births could fall further. Last year’s low rate surprised many. Liang Jianzhang, a professor of economics at Peking University, says he and his colleagues had expected births to peak in 2017 and begin falling after 2018.

“That peak apparently arrived in 2016, with births dropping ever since … What we can expect now is that the number of newborns will continue to shrink rapidly in 2019 and beyond,” he wrote in an editorial in January.

“It can be said with certainty that even though 2018 saw a low number of births, that number will not be surpassed for the next 100 years. China will never see more than 15 million newborns in the future,” he predicted.

Local governments across China are struggling to reverse the declines with subsidies, propaganda initiatives and new regulations on workplace leave. In Xiantao, Hubei province, hospitals have offered to cover the costs of childbirth as well as give a 500 yuan (£60) subsidy for the first child and another 700 for the second. In Changsha, in southern China, an advertising campaign last year listed “1,001 reasons to have a baby”. Between 2016 and 2017, almost all provinces extended maternity leave.

A mother sleeps beside her baby
A mother sleeps beside her newborn baby at a hospital in Shenyang. Photograph: Imagine China/Rex/Shutterstock

Some worry that such measures will turn coercive, with the authorities deploying an extensive family planning apparatus to encourage births. Officials once restricted population size through heavy fines, forced abortions and sterilisations.

“There is a danger that the government sees that what it has tried so far has failed, and it has to become more coercive. There’s a long history in population planning of extreme coercion. There is no question that the government could adopt coercive measures,” says Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.

Critics say that less invasive but still punitive measures would probably emerge gradually at local level under the guise of other causes such as preventing sex-selective abortions. Several provinces have banned abortions after 14 weeks, and Jiangxi province in the south requires the signature of three medical professionals before the procedure can be performed. More provinces have put in place obstacles to getting divorces, including a test or mandated cooling-off period.

Government language has alarmed people. Last year an article in the state-run People’s Daily said: “The birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself but also a state affair.” In August, an economics professor from Nanjing University wrote an editorial proposing a “birth fund” that citizens contribute to, then cash in when they have children. Those who don’t have children would get the money when they retire.

One internet user wrote: “When you don’t want children, you force people to get sterilised. When you want more, you urge us to give birth. What do you think I am?”

For now efforts have focused on cajoling women into have more children for the good of the country. The All China Women’s Federation, a government-affiliated organisation, has been running a “beautiful families” campaign, praising women who serve as primary caretakers of their parents and children.

“The party state sees the declining population as a real problem, and it’s women’s duty to respond to that,” says Jane Golley, an associate professor at Australian National University, who focuses on the Chinese economy and labour economics. “It’s a new era of control over women’s reproductive choices.”

Yet more women are resisting government and societal pressure, and officials are waking up to their concerns. China’s education and human resources ministries have ordered employers to stop asking female applicants about their marital status and plans for children, a common practice.

Ye Liu, a sociologist and lecturer in international development at King’s College London, has been interviewing Chinese women in their late 30s. When the two-child policy was introduced in 2016, most of her respondents were in what should have been the “second spring” of their careers, with the raising of their first child already behind them, with seniority and more bargaining power at work. Many were devastated rather than overjoyed by the new policy.

“They are forever a liability for their employers because they might have a second child,” Ye says. A third of her respondents said they did not want another child, preferring to focus on their career. “They feel like they were experiments of the state. They were the experiments [under the one-child policy] and now they are another experiment. They feel like they are forever being used by the state laboratory,” Ye says.

Children make dumplings
Children make zongzi, a dumpling made of glutinous rice wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, at a kindergarten in Hunnan district of Shenyang. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

Public resentment is one reason why policymakers did not stop the policy sooner. According to Yi Fuxian, the Wisconsin academic, China could have completely scrapped population controls in 1980 and growth would have moderated naturally. But family planners relied on overinflated school enrolment and overreported births by hospitals, individuals and local governments. “Why did we follow such a wrong policy for so long? The Chinese government doesn’t want to admit it’s wrong. It says the policy was right but now is the time to change. If it just says the policy was wrong, the public will become angry,” he says.

Living in a city with some of the lowest birthrates, Shenyang residents appear surprisingly focused on children. Groups of parents and grandparents tote small children around shopping centres filled with playgrounds and stores advertising toys and educational games. Parents describe the range of activities they can choose from: sensory classes for babies, baby swimming classes, taekwondo, Chinese calligraphy, English tutoring or drawing.

The Dunnan True Love Centre in central Shenyang offers high-end convalescence for mothers recuperating after childbirth, a Chinese tradition known as “sitting the month”.This is part of a focus on “quality over quantity”, where families invest all their resources into one child, says Wang Libo, an expert on population at Shenyang Normal University. Of the 500 clients the centre received last year, only three have had a second child, as far as they know. But they expect business to be brisk this year: the year of the pig in the Chinese calendar is associated with luck and wealth and thus an auspicious year to be born.

For many families, the pressure to help their child compete is the main reason for having just the one. Xu sends her son to extra tutoring and lessons but worries that he is under too much pressure. She has read articles about children, pushed too hard by their parents, who have killed themselves or run away from home. She tries to find a place in his schedule for some free time, and buys him all the comics and books that he wants. Still, when he performs a little worse on a test or assignment, she grows anxious again. “You can’t help but wonder: what if I pushed him to study for just 10 more minutes?”


Lily Kuo and Xueying Wang in Shenyang

The GuardianTramp

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