Public Meets “Three-Child Policy” With Skepticism, Ridicule, and Sorrow

China has announced a new three-child policy—the latest sign the central government is worried about the country’s demographics. The 2015 repeal and replacement of the one-child policy with a two-child policy did not boost falling fertility rates, the ratio of births to women of childbearing age. This past May, the results of China’s once-a-decade census revealed that China’s fertility rate was 1.3, significantly lower than the replacement level of 2.1. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee wrote about the government’s latest attempt to boost births, a move widely perceived to be inadequate:

The announcement by the ruling Communist Party represents an acknowledgment that its limits on reproduction, the world’s toughest, have jeopardized the country’s future. The labor pool is shrinking and the population is graying, threatening the industrial strategy that China has used for decades to emerge from poverty to become an economic powerhouse.

[…] “The decision makers have probably realized that the population situation is relatively severe,” said He Yafu, an independent demographer based in the southern Chinese city of Zhanjiang. “But merely opening up the policy to three children and not encouraging births as a whole, I don’t think there will be a significant increase in the fertility rate. Many people don’t want to have a second child, let alone a third child.”

[…] The party’s reluctance to abandon its right to dictate reproductive rights points to the power of such policies as tools of social control. Even as the country has struggled to raise birthrates, the authorities in the western region of Xinjiang have been forcing women of Muslim ethnic minorities, like the Uyghurs, to have fewer babies in an effort to suppress their population growth. [Source]

The government also promised a handful of “supporting measures which will be conducive to improving [the] country’s population structure, fulfilling the country’s strategy of actively coping with an ageing population.” From David Stanway and Tony Munroe at Reuters:

Among those measures, China will lower educational costs for families, step up tax and housing support, guarantee the legal interests of working women and clamp down on “sky-high” dowries, it said, without giving specifics. It would also look to educate young people “on marriage and love”. [Source]

Many Chinese women, it has been noted and backed up by recent demographic information, have no intention of having two children, let alone three. The most popular comment under a Weibo post announcing the policy recommended that the government protect women’s maternity rights and crackdown on workplace discrimination before encouraging them to have more children. Prominent feminist Lü Pin wrote, “I see how fearful the government is to imagine losing control of people’s sex, marriage, childbirth, and lifestyle, and also how eager it is to continue to exploit the unpaid labor of women’s reproduction and caregiving to maintain its ruling stability.” The Economist detailed Chinese society’s tepid response to the new policy:

No indication was given of when the three-child policy would take effect. But reactions to the announcement on social media hardly brimmed with enthusiasm. “Do they not yet know that most young people are exhausted just supporting themselves?” commented one netizen on Weibo, a Twitter-like site. “This policy is totally out of touch with the people,” wrote another. An online poll by Xinhua, a state news agency which broke the news, asked if people would consider having three children. Just 5% of respondents said they would. Most others said “not at all”. At least 31,000 took part in the survey before it was hastily taken down. Netizens devised a new interpretation of a common idiom, minbuliaosheng, which means “the people have no means of livelihood”. They repurposed it to mean “not even speak of giving birth”.

[…] To abolish caps would be tantamount to acknowledging failure. “It’s like steering an oil tanker,” says Stuart Gieten-Bastel of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Allowing couples to have as many children as they like would make redundant a nationwide family-planning apparatus that employs tens of thousands of bureaucrats.

[…] The government cannot let go. It says that “education and guidance” of young people must be “strengthened” on matters relating to marriage and having children. Many are fed up with such attempts. Some netizens noted that the official poster for the three-child policy featured two girls and a boy: a hint, some were sure, that having more girls in the mix was seen as desirable given the imbalance in the sex ratio. Many female netizens noticed a cruel irony. “We women are feeling so frustrated at the moment,” commented one. “Are we now just seen as mere babymaking machines?” [Source]

Much of the skeptical public commentary echoes that of writer Tan Yinghong’s 2015 essay on the abolition of the one-child policy and the institution of the two-child policy: “the policy hasn’t received the broad approval and enthusiastic welcome that was expected [… because] the logic of policy-making still regards the masses as a tool to satisfy the goals of the governing clique, not as people enjoying rights and equality.”

Indeed, a new report by Human Rights Watch finds that the adoption of the two-child policy did little to alleviate the pains imposed on women by the one child-policy. Instead, the two-child policy left women caught between a tug of war between the government, which wanted more births, and workplaces, where mothers often faced rampant discrimination:

Numerous job advertisements in China specify a requirement or preference for men, or for female applicants who already have children, on the assumption that women without children are more likely to take maternity leave. An ad recently posted on the job search website for a manager position in a clothing company in Beijing stated, “age between around 30 and 35, already have children, good looking, and good disposition.”

[…] Employers can impose various punishments on employees who become pregnant. A woman in Guangdong province was fired days after she informed her employer that she was pregnant. A company in Fujian province fired a woman on maternity leave on the grounds of “extreme operation difficulties” although it experienced no business-related losses. A company in Shandong province fined an employee 2,000 yuan (US$300) for having a second child earlier than permitted in her employment contract.

[…] “Instead of pressing women to have a second child for ‘the country’s sake,’ China’s government should fulfill its international obligations by ensuring equal treatment in employment and reproductive rights,” Wang said. “Chinese women have already endured decades of harmful interference in their personal and work lives by a government that disregards women’s rights.” [Source]

The government has embraced a variety of other invasive measures to boost births. A new divorce “cooling-off” period caused divorces to decrease by 70% through the first quarter of 2021. On the same day the three-child policy was announced, Xinhua admitted that marriages had also declined 40% from 2013. But the decline in births is not solely attributable to individuals eschewing marriage, but also to the fact that married couples now want to have fewer children. On average, Chinese people born after 1990 want to have 1.66 children, according to Xinhua.

Despite the push for increased births, the government continues to ban procedures that are believed to increase fertility rates. Single women are banned from freezing their eggs and surrogacy is also prohibited. Official discrimination against single mothers—who are denied maternity benefits—is but another example of policies that discourage women from giving birth. From Vivian Wang at The New York Times:

Chinese law does not explicitly prohibit single women from giving birth. But official family planning policies mention only married couples, and local officials have long provided benefits based on those provisions. Only Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong, allows unmarried women to apply for maternity insurance. In many places, women still face fines or other penalties for giving birth outside of marriage.

[…] With the rejection of marriage has come heightened acknowledgment of single mothers. There are no official statistics on single mothers, but a 2018 report by the state-backed All-China Women’s Federation estimated there would be at least 19.4 million single mothers in 2020. The figure included widowed and divorced women.

[…] The National Health Commission this year emphasized that family planning is the responsibility of “husbands and wives together.” In January, the commission rejected a proposal to open egg freezing to single women, citing ethical and health concerns. [Source]

While the vast majority of intrusive family planning measures have targeted women, men in search of vasectomies have also found themselves foiled by the state’s family planning measures. At The New York Times, Sui-Lee Wee and Elsie Chen profiled the obstacles single men have in obtaining vasectomies:

“If I got married and had a child, I would still belong to the bottom class,” Mr. Huang [,who had a vasectomy at 26,] said, referring to his background as a child of struggling factory workers. “When the time comes, I could also leave my child at home just like my parents. But I don’t want that.”

[…] Choosing voluntary sterilization, especially as a young unmarried man, is still seen as culturally taboo in China’s patriarchal society. In many cities, doctors require a proof of marriage certificate and a partner’s consent. (Before the procedure, the doctor asked Mr. Huang if he was married with children. He lied and said yes.)

[…] Mr. Jiang, a 29-year-old personal trainer in southern Fujian Province, said he tried to get a vasectomy in about six hospitals and was rejected by all of them. The reason: He couldn’t provide a “family planning certificate,” an official document that states a person’s marital status and number of children. [Source]

Many of the traumas imposed by the one-child policy have yet to be addressed. CDT recently translated the testimonies of some who witnessed the “Hundred Childless Days” campaign in Shandong Province’s Guan County. The new policy prompted the WeChat user @是李不是 to resurface the banners once plastered across the countryside threatening women with abortions and fines if they had more than one child:

Control population numbers, improve population caliber

Grasp population planning work daily, monthly, and yearly. Never let go!

A couple having one child is good!

Newly married couples must not forget family planning upon entering the bridal suite.

For poor mountainous areas to become rich, birth fewer children and plant more trees.

Giving birth to two or more babies in violation of the family plan is forbidden.

If you don’t pay the extra-birth fine, see the outcome in jail.

An IUD after one, a ligature after two. Abortion and a ligature for excess pregnancies, a ligature and a fine for excess births.

The photo-essay finished with a wry suggestion that the slogans of the Mao-era might be more appropriate for the present day:


Push the economy up and births will follow. [Chinese]


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