Chinese women unimpressed by government's plan to make more babies

Top-down population policies won't work if the government ignores women's calls for social justice, feminists say.
By Stacy Hsu for RFA Mandarin
2024.03.07
Chinese women unimpressed by government's plan to make more babies Women pose for photos on the Bund in front of Shanghai's skyline on the first day of the Lunar New Year, Feb. 10, 2024.
Nicoco Chan/Reuters

As International Women's Day coincides with the annual meeting of China's National People's Congress, moves are afoot to look at ways to boost flagging birth rates and kick-start the shrinking population.

But young women in today's China are increasingly choosing not to marry or have kids, citing huge inequalities and patriarchal attitudes that still run through family life, not to mention the sheer economic cost of raising a family.

Since ruling Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping called on women to focus on raising families last October, delegates to the National People's Congress have been working a slew of possible policy measures to encourage them to have more babies, including making it easier for women to freeze their eggs and delay motherhood, flexible working policies, insurance coverage for fertility treatment and extended maternity leave.

But for many Chinese women, who grew up influenced by a feminist movement that has changed the character of social media debate despite ongoing censorship and persecution, the government's attempts at "encouragement" are having little effect, according to leading feminists who spoke to RFA Mandarin recently.

A woman pushing a baby carriage waits to cross a street in Beijing, July 10, 2023. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
A woman pushing a baby carriage waits to cross a street in Beijing, July 10, 2023. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

Feng Yuan, a veteran women's rights activist who took part in the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, said the state has always sought to control women's bodies, citing the forced sterilizations and late-term abortions of the decades-long "one-child policy," which ended in 2016 amid concerns over a rapidly aging and shrinking population.

"The one child policy was also about being under the control of the state," she said. "Prior to the one-child policy, the state was encouraging child-bearing, and even praised women as heroic mothers if they had five or six kids."

Fertility is 'a battlefield'

Since the Communist Party took power in 1949, Chinese women have rarely had a sense of their bodily autonomy -- their fertility "has always been a battlefield," Feng said.

Now, the government wants more babies again, but this time around, women are far more aware of their bodily autonomy.

"We definitely have more autonomy than we used to, and we can see a lot of people choosing not to marry," Feng said. "Voluntary infertility is also on the rise, which is another result of growing bodily autonomy."

Sociologist Xu Fang, who lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, said women are also much more highly focused on achieving their personal goals than they once were.

"A lot of young women who have just graduated from college and who have gotten all kinds of recognition along the way must be thinking more about getting a good career ... because this is what they know how to do," Xu said.

"[For them], marriage and children are too complicated."

The figures seem to support this analysis.

The number of Chinese couples tying the knot for the first time has plummeted by nearly 56% over the past nine years, with such marriages numbering less than 11 million in 2022.

A November 2023 poll on the social media platform Weibo found that while most of the 44,000 respondents said 25 to 28 are the best ages to marry, nearly 60% said they were delaying marriage due to work pressures, education or the need to buy property.

And attitudes are strongly skewed by gender, too. A survey of 18-26 year-olds in October 2021 found that more than 40% of women were either choosing not to marry or unsure whether to marry, compared with just over 19% of men in the same age group.

Out of touch

The women surveyed cited lack of time, high financial costs and discrimination against working mothers, amid a broader background of rampant ageism in the workplace.

Xu said China's exclusively male senior leadership is also out of touch with the things that matter to women.

"You can imagine that these men aren't doing much housework, have no childcare experience, so their mentality doesn't take the actual needs of women into account," she said. "That's why I don't think the fertility rate will go up."

A family walks with Chinese flags as the country marks its 74th National Day in Hangzhou, China, Oct. 1, 2023. (Aaron Favila/AP)
A family walks with Chinese flags as the country marks its 74th National Day in Hangzhou, China, Oct. 1, 2023. (Aaron Favila/AP)

But even if women do exercise their bodily autonomy and resist the state's attempts to turn them into "baby machines," as some online comments have complained, that doesn't mean they won't face growing social pressure to conform, especially if the government is stepping up propaganda to force them into "traditional" roles, Feng said.

"Pressure from family members, their husbands and their family, their own parents will all be supported by government policy and encouragement measures, which will increase the pressure on women," Feng said.

Currently, the government is paying out childcare subsidies worth between 300-1,200 yuan (US$42-167) a month to families with two or three kids. Yet birth rates fell from 13.57% in 2016, the year that the one-child policy ended, to just 6.39% in 2023.

According to Feng, such measures aren't enough to change the minds of young women concerned about getting trapped with an overwhelming workload -- both inside and outside the home -- that isn't shared evenly with their husband.

Many women are citing gender inequality within families as a key reason not to get involved, she said, adding that flexible working hours and egg-freezing are unlikely to do much to change that.

Xu Fang said that Chinese families used to be much bigger, allowing people to share the burden of childcare across more family members. 

Now, everyone of child-bearing age today was likely an only child, leaving two parents alone in caring for two or three kids, she said.

She said the only way to encourage women to have more children would be to reduce the unequal burden that motherhood places on them.

'Government policy was wrong'

Veteran feminist and New York-based writer Lu Pin said the flip-flop from a hugely repressive one-child policy in 2016 to today's demand for more babies has damaged the ruling Chinese Communist Party's credibility.

"This is tantamount to admitting that this flagship government policy was wrong," she said. "The government ... have had to pay a price in terms of their credibility for this."

She said a eugenicist policy allowing widespread abortions of any fetus not conceived in a heterosexual marriage, or with birth defects, has also contributed to the widespread use of abortion, which also runs counter to the government's attempts to boost births.

Figures on abortion are hard to find, but were estimated by a health and family planning researcher in 2015 at around 13 million a year, more than half of which were repeat abortions. The abortion rate was estimated at 62%, compared with around 11% in Western Europe.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Roseanne Gerin.

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COMMENTS

Mike Murphy
Mar 18, 2024 10:43 PM

while the CCP may have been wrong in implementing the one child policy years ago, that was at a time when China could not feed its population. Today's policy of encouraging more children is the correct policy. The demographics show that if women of child Bering age do not have children the populating will decrease exponentially. This will be bad for the country as there will be very few to care for the elderly and keep the economy moving. I would ask that more Chinese women, whether considering marrying or not, have as many children as they can afford. Push for more rights now as the government has no choice but agree with that. Having children will save the country and, at the same time, serve as protection of parents as they age.