China recently announced, with great fanfare, that it would allow all married couples to have three children. “The Three-Child Policy Has Arrived! Are You Ready to Give Birth?” screamed state media headlines. This had echoes of 2016, when the government ended its decades-long “one-child policy.” Communist Party officials had hoped that this would result in a baby boom, adding tens of millions of new workers to the labor force by 2050. But those hopes were dashed: After a brief baby bump in 2016, birth rates have declined for four consecutive years. Last year, 12 million babies were born, the lowest number of births since 1961, when China was in the midst of a catastrophic famine.
This latest policy change is also unlikely to boost birth rates. Many couples cite the high cost of raising a child without an adequate social safety net as a deterrent to having an additional child. But more important, Chinese women want autonomy.
Millions of young women in China’s rapidly growing middle class — especially those who are college-educated — are beginning to experience an awakening about their rights, with profound consequences for China’s future. Though their backgrounds vary widely, a critical mass of women want freedom to make their own decisions about their bodies and their lives; freedom from a controlling husband or in-laws; freedom to pursue their careers without the burden of taking care of one or more children. Not surprisingly, along with plummeting birth rates, first-time marriages in China have also fallen by 41 percent between 2013 and 2019.
This trend of women delaying or rejecting marriage began as early as the 1990s in other parts of East Asia, such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, but it has only recently emerged in China. And it’s a trend that the Chinese government has aggressively fought. In 2007, China’s cabinet, the State Council, declared that “unprecedented population pressures” posed a “threat to social stability,” which hurt the country’s ability to “meet the requirements of fierce competition for national strength.” That same year, state media popularized the term “leftover women” (sheng nü) to refer to professional women in their late 20s who are single. State media churned out sexist articles, cartoons and editorials, shaming single women for pursuing advanced degrees or careers, urging women to marry before age 27 to “avoid becoming unwanted.”
That campaign largely backfired, thanks in part to feminist activists’ influence on social media discourse. Despite heavy Internet censorship and surveillance in China (not to mention misogynistic abuse online), social media has played an important role in promoting greater awareness of gender discrimination in society. More and more young women — especially university students or graduates — are sharing information about their experiences with sexism and refusing to give in to unwanted pressure to marry or have babies.
Chinese society is changing rapidly, and many women feel no rush to have children. A recent report in the state-run Global Times stated that more than three-quarters of working mothers surveyed said relaxing birth restrictions would not make them more likely to have another child, while a quarter of the women surveyed did not want to get married. A previous survey of more than 40,000 working women in 2017 by Zhaopin, one of China’s largest job-recruiting websites, found that 40 percent of working women in China without children did not want to have children at all. For women who already had one child, 63 percent did not want a second child. More than half of the women surveyed said their biggest concern about having children was “difficulty in returning to work after childbearing.”
Why doesn’t China simply get rid of all birth restrictions? Despite the rosy rhetoric about giving couples more freedom to have children, the government’s goal is not simply to increase total births nationwide — they must be the right kinds of births. For more than a decade, China’s propaganda apparatus has sought to push “high quality,” Han Chinese women into traditional roles of wives and stay-at-home mothers, who produce “high quality” babies for the good of the nation. In its 2007 warning about “population pressures,” the State Council named “upgrading population quality” (tigao renkou suzhi) as a key goal, an aim highlighted again in the latest three-child policy announcement. As part of that push to “upgrade,” the state media has regularly published unscientific reports on babies born with birth defects, attributed to “women having their first child at an older age.” Since 2016, it has also bombarded urban, Han Chinese women with messages urging them to hurry up and have two babies instead of one, preferably before they turn 30, lest they miss out on their “best childbearing years.”
In addition, the right kind of births must be confined within the politically stabilizing institution of heterosexual marriage. Married Han women are now exhorted to have three children, but single women in China who want to have a baby are still penalized for doing so. The children of single mothers may be denied a household registration (hukou) and have trouble gaining entry to school or access to affordable health care, or their mothers may be forced to pay a “social maintenance fee.” Single women are banned from using assisted reproductive technology. (In 2019, a feminist activist, Teresa Xu, filed a landmark lawsuit for a single woman’s right to freeze her eggs. She is still waiting for an outcome to her case.) China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission states that reproductive planning is the duty of “husbands and wives together”; by contrast, the government views single mothers as unnatural for wanting to give birth outside marriage, and a threat to social stability.
The “two-child policy” and now the “three-child policy,” rather than signaling a more permissive era, instead paint an ominous picture for the future of women’s rights in China. As the country aggressively pursues “high quality” births, the next logical step for authorities might be to introduce more restrictions on abortion. (Jiangxi province, for example, introduced stricter guidelines in 2018 for women seeking abortions after 14 weeks, ostensibly to help prevent sex-selective abortions.) Meanwhile, authorities will probably continue to suppress population growth among people perceived as “low quality” or as a threat to political stability, most notably, Uyghur women in Xinjiang.
For now, the government itself seems anxious about the efficacy of its pro-natalist push. Already, censors have been working overtime to delete criticism of the three-child policy. China’s official Xinhua News deleted a poll asking readers if they were prepared to have a third child after more than 90 percent of respondents said they “won’t even consider it,” according to journalists’ screenshots. In recent months, Chinese feminists have had their Weibo accounts deleted, and the social media platform Douban shut down discussion groups calling for women to fight the patriarchy by refusing to marry or have babies with men. But that may not be enough to suppress the broader feminist awakening that will frustrate the government’s efforts. Banned from Weibo, activist Lü Pin took to Clubhouse to host a discussion of the three-child policy. “The widespread anger of Chinese female netizens,” she wrote earlier, “fully shows that this policy is doomed to be ineffective.”