Tue. Nov 30th, 2021

When

Li Fanfang,

a 33-year-old former government worker in Hangzhou, was fired by her employer in December for having a third child, she went to court.

That was after an arbitrage board said she wasn’t covered by protections for new mothers because she had violated China’s birth policies. Her case was well publicized, but she was hesitant to use her full name in media interviews for fear of drawing online criticism for breaking the rules.

All along, she didn’t feel she did anything wrong. Now, China’s demographics has put Beijing on her side. On Monday came the announcement that all Chinese couples will be allowed to have three children.

“I’m very excited,” Ms. Li said. Births that Chinese authorities deem “excessive,” have exposed parents to fines and other punishments. Ms. Li, who is awaiting a court ruling, said she wants to see China become a birth-friendly society. “No baby is excessive.”

In an online support group of mothers with more than two children, Ms. Li and other mothers shared virtual “red-envelope” gifts to celebrate the announcement Monday, which was accompanied by pledges to make raising children less expensive.

But families who want big broods are vanishingly rare in today’s China. The one-child policy’s official implementation in 1980 changed the mind-set over the more than three decades it was in effect and made single-child families the norm. In recent years, China has eased its birth restrictions gradually; starting in 2016, all couples could have two children. Nonetheless, births have dropped for four straight years.


‘I’ve dreamed about this day for a long time. When it finally comes, it’s too late for me.’


— Xu Li, an elementary school teacher in Shandong province

What China now allows is something some Chinese demographers have wanted for decades. But they say the easing would have had a much bigger impact a couple of decades ago, when there were more women of childbearing age and many parents ached to have more children.

“With small family sizes now well ingrained into the fabric of Chinese society, there is little that policy makers can do to turn back the clock,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, an economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a report Monday.

For

Xu Li,

an elementary school teacher in Shandong province, having a third child appealed to her for years and she had hoped the government would ease the restriction.

“I’ve dreamed about this day for a long time. When it finally comes, it’s too late for me,” said Ms. Xu, who is now 45.

What China now allows is increasingly out of step with the trend of young women postponing or forgoing marriage and children.

“Getting married and having children is not the only path for women anymore. We have more options and can live our lives in many ways,” says

Luo Dan,

38, who lives with several cats and her boyfriend in Beijing.

China’s one-child policy was implemented in 1980 and, over more than three decades, it changed people’s mind-set. Single-child families became the norm, despite the easing of birth restrictions in recent years.



Photo:

kim kyung-hoon/Reuters

Li Moyu,

44, a former executive at a tech company, said she and her husband, both graduates of elite Chinese universities, gave priority to their careers, and might not have had children if their parents hadn’t nagged them for grandchildren and called them selfish. In her late 30s, Ms. Li had a son, who is now in first grade.

“Until now, we still haven’t found a good reason to have a second child,” said Ms. Li, now an editor at a PR firm in Beijing. Her current pay is much lower than her previous job, but she needs the flexible working hours to take care of her son.

To be sure, many families have taken the opportunity to have a second child. More than half of newborns between 2016 and 2019 were second children, official data shows. But many women, especially those in large cities, find the prospect too daunting.

The trend of declining births across China has been well documented. Nonetheless, the publication of results from China’s once-a-decade census in May was still a wake-up call.

Huang Wenzheng,

a researcher with the Center for China and Globalization think tank in Beijing, said the reluctance among young people to start a family is even worse than he had thought. “I don’t think people realize how quickly young people’s mind-set have changed,” he said.

Following the announcement of the eased limits Monday, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that the number of marriage registrations in 2020 was 40% lower compared with 2013. Xinhua, which attributed the data to the National Health Commission, said Chinese people born after 1990 say they want to have 1.66 children on average, down 10% from the generation born after 1980.

The number of women who are aged 20 to 34 years old dropped by nearly 3.7 million in 2020 from a year earlier, Xinhua said.

The just-released census data shows that the most severe demographic imbalances are in China’s northeast rust-belt region, which lost more than 11 million people over the past decade. Heilongjiang, the country’s northernmost province, lost nearly 17% of its population between 2010 and 2020, and of those left, 23% were aged 60 years or older. Those under 14 account for just 10%.

In one online discussion group, a mother recounted how she had visited her hometown in Heilongjiang with her three children, a sight so rare there that she was asked by neighbors if she had given birth overseas, where China’s birth restrictions don’t apply.

Other parts of China that were extra zealous about enforcing family-planning rules are now also in deep trouble.

Rudong county, in Jiangsu province, was one of the first local governments to implement the one-child policy. Now, with almost 40% of the province’s population of 880,000 aged 60 or older, and nearly 30% aged 65 or older, it is struggling.

Faced with a shortage of children, several high schools have stopped enrolling new students. Amid a surging demand for nursing homes, the local government is looking for private investors to help some 7,000 elderly residents who cannot take care of themselves.

China’s Demographic Difficulties

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By rahul