China’s three-child policy unlikely to be welcomed by working women

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China’s new policy of allowing couples to have three children (instead of the previous limit of two) is an attempt to address concerns about the aging population and the slowing birth rate. But the implications of the policy for working women and their families mean that few will welcome change with open arms.

The aging of the population is a major concern in China. According to the latest national census in November 2020, the number of people aged 60 and over in the country reached 260 million – or 18.7% of the population. By 2050, that number is expected to increase to 500 million.

Although societies around the world are aging, the challenges are more acute in China due to the number of people involved (nearly 20% of the world’s population), their relatively low income level and the country’s economic development stage.

While improvements in living standards have increased life expectancy, the state’s family planning policy – the “one-child policy” – has contributed the most to the aging trend. This policy was formally introduced in 1979 in response to fears that unchecked population growth would jeopardize economic development and modernization, and has been strictly and effectively enforced in urban areas through fines at the place of labor and other punitive measures.

But nearly four decades later, the first generation of one-child policy children have now become parents themselves, placing on their shoulders the responsibility of potentially each having to provide for two parents and four grown-ups. -parents.

To cope with this inverted age pyramid, the state ended the one-child policy in 2015, introducing in its place a national two-child policy. As the state had already (from the mid-1980s) allowed rural couples to have a second child if their first was a girl, this new policy targeted the urban population.

But few couples – just 5% or 6% – have opted for a second child, given insufficient childcare services and the rising cost of family living in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

A multigenerational family with two children visits an outdoor shopping mall in Beijing.
Roman Pilipey / EPA-EFE

The new three-child policy has sparked a wave of online discussions among Chinese citizens, with many expressing shock and resentment at the state’s renewed efforts to manipulate citizens’ reproductive decisions.

Some have uploaded photos of earlier state slogans from the one-child policy era. One of the slogans read: “If a person exceeds the birth quota, villagers throughout the village have to have their tubes tied.”

Social media discussions among the women commented on how the new policy initiative would unfairly affect their jobs and family life, given that childcare remains a woman’s job in China. Only a very small minority hoped that the implementation of the three-child policy would lead the state to improve housing, education, medical care and care for the elderly.

Urban vs rural

The impact of the policy will depend on where you look in China. In large cities and provincial capitals, my five-year study of Chinese family life reveals that only a very small proportion of couples born in the 1980s – the first cohort of the “one-child generation” – have had a birth. second child even once they were allowed.

It therefore seems unlikely that couples in the 1980s cohort would benefit from the allowance for three children. Married interviewees born in the 1990s, acclimatized to the one-child culture, took a wait-and-see approach to the possibility of even having a second child.

Comments from one interviewee (born 1991) capture the dilemma he and his wife face as they contemplate a second child:

It’s possible. But I won’t make the final decision. If my wife is in great pain from raising our first child, we certainly will not have a second child. Before the arrival of their first child, many of my friends were so confident in their plans to have a second child. But as soon as they had their first child, they all hesitated to have a second. We will see if our future financial situation allows it and that will also depend on the good health of our parents.

Younger couples in urban areas also did not show a strong preference for boys.

In contrast, my study found that in rural areas, many of the married cohorts of the 1980s and 1990s already had a second child. Whether or not rural couples respond positively to the new three-child policy will depend on the gender of their existing two children.

Despite the increased investment in girls’ education in rural China, I have found a consistent preference for boys over three generations. If a couple’s two children are both girls, then it is very likely that they will try to have a third child. Indeed, in rural Fujian, where lineage culture and customs are much stronger than in many northern provinces, some villagers born in the early 1990s already had three or four children in their efforts to produce a boy heir.

The burden of care

Having three children will have gender and generational consequences. Gender discrimination is deeply institutionalized in the Chinese labor market. When asked if they were planning to have a second child, some of my women interviewed admitted that their employers’ refusal to bear the costs of their reproductive decisions made their decision difficult. Unless gender discrimination in the labor market is systematically addressed, choosing to have three children will have a negative effect on women’s career paths.

The limited offer of childcare services for infants under three years old means that at the end of a new mother’s maternity leave (currently after about four months) her mother or mother-in-law will assume childcare responsibilities for their new grandchild. Given the shortage of good quality retirement homes for the elderly, these grandparents will also have to look after their own parents. In short, having three children will only increase the burden of care for all generations.

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