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Why are women in China not having more babies?

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A woman holding a baby girl lines up for a PCR COVID test in Shanghai in 2022. Birth rates continued to fall during China's strict zero-COVID policy during the pandemic.

A woman holding a baby girl lines up for a PCR COVID test in Shanghai in 2022. Birth rates continued to fall during China's strict zero-COVID policy during the pandemic. Charles Zhang/Marketplace

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28-year-old Joy Yu’s parents each had three siblings. As they were growing up in the 1970s, the Chinese government started to limit the number of babies born.

Government statistics show on average a woman in China went from having about three babies in the late 1970s to just one.

Four decades on, China’s leaders are asking women to have three children again, which doesn’t sit well for Yu, an only child.

“For me to give birth to three children, my future husband must be rich enough to make sure I can live well without a job. This is a big challenge,” Yu said.

Last year, China’s population dropped for the first time in six decades by 850,000. That still leaves the country with 1.41 billion people but if the decline continues, there will be multiple impacts on the economy.

One-child policy

China began enforcing birth limits in the late 1970s when the country was poor and there were too many mouths to feed.

In a Chinese propaganda film called the Disturbance of Gan Quan Village, the birth restrictions were justified on economic grounds.

“We should put our energy into getting rich rather than keep having children,” says one woman in the film.

She’s sitting among a group of women picking corn kernels off the cob. “Aren’t we getting poorer with each child we have,” she says. The rest of the group nods in agreement.

An elderly woman with a gardening hoe slung over her shoulder tends to rice paddy fields in central China. Women are expected to work and do the bulk of child rearing and when they get older, are also expected to care for the grandchildren. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

Chinese leaders enforced, sometimes brutally, the so-called one-child policy in 1979, just as the country was coming out of the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

“The post-[Chairman] Mao leadership thought that economic development would be the new basis for the party’s political legitimacy and based on pseudo-scientific and demographic projections, limiting birth to one child per married heterosexual couple,” said Yun Zhou, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan.

There were exceptions. Some ethnic minority groups could have up to three children. People from rural areas could try for a second child if their first-born was not a boy. Later, if both parents had no siblings they could have two children. Starting in 2016, China raised the birth limit for everyone to two children, but there was no sustained baby bump.


Yu said she had opportunities her parents never had because she grew up without siblings. She attended one of China’s top colleges and her parents are able to help her with a down payment on a pricey property in Shanghai if she so desires.

Still, Yu said over an Italian meal in Shanghai, she is not even sure she wants to get married or have children.

Raising children in China is expensive. Also, the work of raising children, like in many countries, falls disproportionately on women. Those demands would be hard to juggle with China’s long work hours. A six-day work week is standard in many sectors.

Other people have complained of being penalized in the workplace for being mothers.

“Women are being forced back to the home to increase births. It is like my body isn’t mine.”

Only-child, Joy Yu

Global impact

Fewer people might mean slower growth in China, which will be felt by the U.S. and beyond.

“They’ve now become, you know, the center of the global manufacturing superhighway and are typically the largest contributor to growth every year,” said Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Chinese officials often credit the so-called one-child policy for preventing over 400 million births, but some analysts say China’s population would have declined regardless.

“It’s just simply a rule across all countries, that as you urbanize, and as you get a more educated female population that enters the workforce, fertility numbers fall,” Kennedy said.

An elderly woman in a wheelchair riding a lift to go up a Shanghai subway staircase. The number of retirees is rapidly growing but there are fewer workers to fund their care. (Charles Zhang/Marketplace)

China’s birth restrictions merely sped up that trend and made the fertility rate drop dramatically and unevenly. The traditional preference for boys in Chinese families combined with the birth limits and ease of access to abortion has led to a massive gender imbalance.

Chinese government statistics show in 2020 for every 100 women there are 105 men, whereas the global ratio is one-to-one.

Attempted incentives

To encourage more births, the Chinese government has dangled a mix of carrots and sticks — cash incentives, tax breaks, pledging to lower the cost of children’s education, and making it harder for couples to divorce.

“Now, the government organizes matchmaking events, and it’s a mission just like when it enforced the one-child policy. This is so terrifying,” Yu said. “Women are being forced back to the home to increase births. It is like my body isn’t mine.”

A backdrop of gendered violence

Sometimes, the government is asked to step in, but officials are instead accused of a cover up.

For example, when a woman was found chained up in a far-flung village after having given birth to eight children, it triggered a discussion on human trafficking. But efforts by local journalists and concerned citizens to verify the details of this woman’s life independently have been repeatedly blocked by local officials. That includes an attempt by pioneering lawyer Li Zhuang earlier this year. He wrote a post about the difficulties he encountered, which was later deleted.

In northern China’s Tangshan city, a group of men savagely beat some women at a restaurant. The incident provoked a public outcry and while officials have punished the men and dismissed some police officers, the women have not been seen in public since. Officials were accused of suppressing the discussion about violence against women.

Even women in wealthy cities like Shanghai said they could identify with the victims in the reports.

“Those reports encapsulate a sense of gendered precarity that speaks to women in [a] deeply patriarchal and gender unequal society,” social demographer Zhou said.

Economic costs

The number of Chinese workers is already declining; according to the World Bank, in 2001, China had 10 workers to support one retiree.

“In 2020, that was down to five working folks for each retiree and by 2050 it’ll be down to two,” Kennedy said.

He believes China still has time to offset the effects of population decline, including by boosting productivity, increasing the retirement age and lifting restrictions on people from rural areas to freely settle in cities with their families.

“I don’t think the problem has become so severe that demography is destiny, and China is destined to radically slow down and its chances of becoming an economic superpower breaking out of the middle income trap have been dashed,” Kennedy said.

“[But] these are pretty significant challenges.”

Additional research by Charles Zhang.

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