China's measures to boost flagging birth rates can't fix gender inequality: analysts

Rising costs and widespread workplace discrimination make having more kids a tough ask for Chinese women.
By Mia Ping-chieh Chen for RFA Mandarin
China's measures to boost flagging birth rates can't fix gender inequality: analysts A woman walks in a subway station with two children in Beijing on July 5, 2022.

Plans by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to boost flagging birth rates with a slew of economic perks to couples who have a third child could fall on deaf ears in the absence of equal treatment for women in the workplace, commentators said on Wednesday.

The plan announced jointly by 17 different government departments offers "support policies in finance, tax, housing, employment, education and other fields to create a fertility-friendly society and encourage families to have more children,” the guidelines say.

They promise expanded community nursery services, better infant and child care services at local level, including funding for the building of new early years facilities and government controls on childcare fees, as well as government perks for nurseries in the form of cheaper bills.

They also promise to "build a fertility-friendly employment environment," encouraging flexible working and family-friendly workplaces, and safeguarding the labor and employment rights of parents.

Discrimination in the workplace still presents major obstacles to equality for Chinese women, despite protections enshrined in the country's law.

Chinese women still face major barriers to finding work in the graduate labor market and fear getting pregnant if they have a job, out of concern their employer will fire them.

Overseas rights groups cite high levels of unemployment among highly qualified Chinese women, while unskilled migrant women workers are preferred by employers as being less likely to take a stand on labor rights, pay, and working conditions.

Rights groups say women in China have failed to achieve economic or social gains at the same level or pace as men; and rural, migrant, and ethnic minority women and girls are doubly vulnerable.

Children paint on a plastic sheet at a park on International Children's Day in Haian,  China's eastern Jiangsu province on June 1, 2022. Credit: AFP
Children paint on a plastic sheet at a park on International Children's Day in Haian, China's eastern Jiangsu province on June 1, 2022. Credit: AFP
Education stress

Rising inflation and stresses linked to educating children in a highly competitive system have also taken a toll on the desires of families to have more kids.

The package of incentives comes after CCP leadership shut down hundreds of thousands of private tutor schools, in a bid to slash the burden of homework and out-of-hours educational activities on families.

More than 75 percent of students in primary and secondary education attended after-school tutoring in 2016, the most recent industry figures showed, and the need to hothouse children privately to get them into the best schools was criticized by CCP leader Xi Jinping in March 2021 as a barrier to boosting birth rates.

Chinese women of childbearing age intended to have 1.64 children on average in 2021, down from 1.76 in 2017 and 1.73 in 2019, the Global Times reported.

Online comments on the measures suggested that little has changed, with people still complaining that a lack of time, money and energy are the main barriers to having bigger families.

"To put it bluntly, it's the money," one social media comment said, adding that the problem "can't be solved with a few sheets of A4."

"Encouraging births is first and foremost an economic problem, not a policy matter, and can't be solved by issuing a document," the user wrote.

Inequality worsening

Wang Wendi, research director of the U.S.-based Institute of Family Studies (IFS), said her research had borne out the opinions expressed on social media. 

"They say they can't afford it; it's mainly because of economic issues," Wang told RFA. "The cost of raising children in China is pretty high, because everyone has only one child, and so parents invest more in that child."

"So a lot of people think if they have more than one kid, that it will cost twice or three times as much, and ... many families feel they can't afford that," she said.

She said childbearing subsidies and other social welfare benefits could do a lot to change people's minds, particularly in lower-income households.

Zhang Jing, New York-based founder of Women's Rights in China, said regarding fathers as part of the child-rearing process would also help, as much of the physical, emotional and mental strain of raising children is still left to women.

"The culture of inequality between men and women in Chinese society is worsening," Zhang told RFA. "Women are the ones under pressure."

"No amount of encouragement, welfare measures or incentives is going to improve women's status in the workplace one bit," she said.

"There is no protection of women's social status, whether at the legal level or at the level of social welfare, and the culture and habitual attitudes aren't good for women," Zhang said.

"It's too hard for women to have more kids. I wouldn't want more children either, if it were me," she said.

 Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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