The one-child policy is history, but rules in China still restrict families

Jennifer Pak Oct 13, 2020
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Zhuang Mengyi left a good job in Beijing to raise her son in the cheaper countryside. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace

The one-child policy is history, but rules in China still restrict families

Jennifer Pak Oct 13, 2020
Zhuang Mengyi left a good job in Beijing to raise her son in the cheaper countryside. Jennifer Pak/Marketplace
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Video producer Zhuang Mengyi grew up among the corn fields, pomelo and fig trees of Zhouwangmiao town in China’s eastern Zhejiang province. The 28-year-old does not have siblings.

She was born under China’s controversial one-child policy. It freed her parents to spend a lot of money on her.

“I had all sorts of extra classes in painting, guitar and English,” Zhuang said.

She is the first in the family to get a college degree, and she found a good job in Beijing.

Then she got pregnant.

“I got married, left Beijing and moved back to the countryside to give birth to my son,” Zhuang said.

Two-year-old Fang Zixian may grow up as an only child just like his parents did. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Two-year-old Fang Zixian may grow up as an only child, just like his parents did. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

For now, she, her son and husband live at her parents’ home while their newly bought apartment is being renovated.

Zhuang has a new job with shorter hours so she can take care of her son.

Unlike her parents’ generation, Chinese officials want young people like her and her husband to have a second child. In late October 2015, China announced it would end the one-child policy.

However, Zhuang is not interested in expanding her family because of the costs.

“My son took my life down a completely different track. A second child would place even more restrictions on my career,” she said.

Nearly five years since the two-child policy came into force, China’s fertility level is still below what is required to keep the population at its current size. The number of births in China hit a decades low of 14.7 million last year.

Low birth rate

“Given this unexpected low birth rate … the aging scenario for China will be more severe. That could have a series of long-term implications from government spending on pensions, health care, to the ratio between taxpayers and retirees,” said Wang Feng, sociology professor at University of California, Irvine, and Shanghai’s Fudan University.

He said while low fertility is a trend in advanced economies, there are two factors that are unique to China’s case: the speed of economic change and the difficulty for people to choose where to raise their families. The Chinese government makes that choice difficult.

More young women coming to childbearing age were born in the 1990s and have only seen China’s economy grow, sometimes in double digits.

Freelance writer Xu Zaozao (pseudonym) in front of the Beijing hospital she's suing for refusing to freeze her eggs. (Courtesy of Xu Zaozao)
Freelance writer Xu Zaozao (a pseudonym) in front of the Beijing hospital she’s suing for refusing to freeze her eggs. (Courtesy of Xu Zaozao)

A six-day work week is normal across many sectors in China and overtime is often expected, which contributes to people delaying marriage and having children.

“People work very hard because they see the opportunities, and they are afraid of that going away,” Wang said.

Hukou system: city vs. countryside

Secondly, China’s economic opportunities are still concentrated in urban centers along the east coast, but not everyone is treated the same under the government’s household registration system known as the hukou.

“You have two kinds of citizens [in China],” Wang said.

There are those with hukous registered in megacities like Beijing and Shanghai, which gives them priority to highly coveted local hospitals, schools and pension schemes.

The people who have their hukou registered in the countryside, such as Zhuang and her husband, Fang Yuan, are allowed to work in the Chinese capital, but must jump through many hoops to buy a home.

“If you can’t buy property there, you can’t send your children to a good public school. Without a good education, there is no future in China, so why bother raising children,” Fang said.

Since 2017, the number of births in China has been dropping every year.

Zhuang Mengyi (left) and husband, Fang Yuan in front of her parents' three-story home in the Chinese countryside. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)
Zhuang Mengyi, left, and husband, Fang Yuan, in front of her parents’ three-story home in the Chinese countryside. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

For nearly a decade, China’s labor pool has contracted by 44 million.

The first industries hit have been manufacturers. Many have left China for lower-cost countries in Southeast Asia.

The Kaihong factory is among the few surviving shoe manufacturers in southern China, and it struggles to find workers.

“Young people born under China’s one-child policy are getting more educated, and they don’t want to work in factories,” factory owner Jones Hsueh said.

Chinese officials say the economy needs workers and they abolished the one-child policy, but China still has rules about family size.

“You’re allowed to have two children, but nobody said you can have three,” Wang said. “We saw reports that people got penalized for having a third child.”

Single women who want children are out of luck, too.

A 32-year-old freelance writer from northern China wanted to freeze her eggs so that she could focus on her career but still have the option of having children later.

She attempted to have her eggs frozen in 2018, but the Beijing hospital she went to rejected her, citing a government policy that the service is only available to married women.

“When I got rejected, I felt shackled and powerless,” said the writer, who is identified in the Chinese press by the pseudonym Xu Zaozao because she fears public harassment.

“The doctor said I should just get married and have children in a legal way.”

Chinese manufacturers like the Kaihong shoe factory have been hit hardest by China’s shrinking workforce. (Shanghai 808 Studio)

Instead, Xu is suing the hospital for violating her rights.

“Whenever the issue of population comes up in the news, the discussion is always [centered] on how to make woman have less children or more children,” Xu said. “It’s always about controlling women’s bodies.”

Unlike the one-child policy that was enforced through mandatory intrauterine devices in new mothers, heavy fines and sometimes forced abortions, there are few government incentives for families to have one more child.

However, those who resist having a second child face intense societal and familial pressure.

Fang’s parents want more grandchildren.

“They wanted to have a second child but weren’t allowed to. Now that we’re allowed to, we don’t want to,” he said.

Fang wants his son to do better than he and his wife have and perhaps study in the United States, which he said would require all the resources they have.

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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