Sophia Wang knows to expect the question from relatives every time she returns to her hometown in China’s rural Hunan province for Lunar New Year: “When are you going to get married and have children?”
Initially, the financial burden of raising a child in China’s hypercompetitive schooling environment made Wang hesitant. But more recently, the 27-year-old, who works in marketing at a consulting firm in Beijing, has simply decided to put herself first.
“My ideal outcome is to find someone to live a DINK life with,” Wang said, referring to a “double income, no kids” household. “I don’t rule out marriage, but I really do reject having children. My parents’ generation thought it was easy to bring up a baby — just give them food now and then, and up they grow. But it’s different for us now.”
Statistics last week confirmed that China’s population is officially shrinking, as more people died than were born. This has been expected, but it has still revived debates in the country about how to avert the demographic crisis brought on by a shrinking workforce unable to support a rapidly aging population — a challenge exacerbated by 35 years of limiting most families to a single child.
Nationalist commentators and some demographers have called for an all-out government campaign encouraging more births. But other experts argue this is not the solution and will put pressure on women to prioritize children over their careers.
“Having more babies is not going to increase productivity,” said Stuart Gietel-Basten, a scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Having more babies is not going to fix the pension system. Having more babies isn’t going to reduce youth unemployment.”
A more viable solution, he suggested, is for China to redouble efforts to improve the social safety net, pensions and health care, as well as to move up the value chain and allow the nation as a whole to shift from relying on abundant cheap labor.
Many in China’s middle class would prefer the government accept that the country cannot reproduce its way out of its demographic challenges and instead focus on better supporting those who decide to have children — by reducing the financial burden and securing career opportunities.
Even before the most recent announcement, young and highly educated middle-class Chinese were growing increasingly anxious about official encouragement to have multiple babies after the “one child” policy was abandoned in 2016.
Yun Zhou, a sociologist at the University of Michigan, conducted interviews and found many young Chinese worried that pervasive gender discrimination in the workplace would get even worse as “employers grow increasingly hesitant to hire women workers, fearing that they will have not just one but two or more children.”
The one-child policy inflicted suffering on a huge scale through forced abortions, sterilizations and fines for having more children than quotas allowed. But it did have some positive outcomes for gender equality: Only daughters benefited from reduced competition with male siblings for parental attention, and investment of time and money in education. Some of Zhou’s interviewees saw the limitation as a “guardrail” against being expected to have more children than they wanted.
Many urban women developed a vision of paid employment where “it meant independence, it meant having individualistic pursuits, it meant having a life of their own,” Zhou said.
As Wang noted, the hypercompetitive school environment is another deterrent.
The state has, for a long time, encouraged families to raise what government officials call “high quality” children who are highly educated and motivated, but that is an ideal that hardly anyone can obtain because the costs are so high, said Kailing Xie, a lecturer in international development at Britain’s University of Birmingham. “This really increased anxiety among even middle-class families, leading them to ask, ‘What’s the point?’”
In the days since the statistics put the spotlight back on this issue, hashtags saying “is it important to have descendants?” or the “reasons you don’t want to have a child” have drawn debate on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Some users took issue with (often male) commentators who urged more births, responding that, while having a child should be everyone’s right, it isn’t anyone’s responsibility.
In online debates, many commentators suggested that protecting women’s rights in the workplace is essential to raising the birthrate. Ren Zeping, an economist who works with YuWa Population Research Institute, asked his Weibo followers to vote for policy support options. After 126,000 votes, the top result was subsidies for parents, and in close second place was greater support for women’s career interests.
Others used the recent neologism “renkuang,” which combines the characters for human and for a mine or mineral deposit, to voice displeasure at being treated like a raw resource exploited for economic ends.
The term — which can perhaps be translated as “humine” — joins a growing lexicon of China’s disaffected youth, alongside “lying flat,” “let it rot” and “involution,” all of which are used to capture frustration with government expectations of hard work and sacrifice without the offer of rewards.
Some shared a sentiment attributed to Chinese writer Eileen Chang, “If a child is born to inherit your own toil, panic, and poverty, then not giving birth is also a kindness.”
A college student surnamed Xu said she posted the quotation because it captured a sense of heartache and grievance that fueled her reticence over having children. “To put it bluntly, I don’t have enough money, and I don’t believe I will be able to give my children a relatively prosperous life in the future,” she said, declining to give her full name for fear of reprisals for speaking to foreign media.
Another hot topic online was the need to face the risks of harm during pregnancy and childbirth. Liu Xueqian, 34, who works at a state firm in Hangzhou, decided against having a second child after complications during the delivery of her daughter four years ago. A prolonged labor and high fever ended with a traumatic emergency Caesarean section.
After the initial health scare, she reflected on the kind of life she wanted and rejected entreaties from her parents and in-laws to consider having more children. “The impact of raising kids on my career is not bad — it’s more that I’m no longer free in the trivial matters of life,” Liu said. “I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve eaten out in recent years.”