The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China needs a baby boom to avert a demographic crisis. Small steps won’t be enough.

As a single woman, Zhang Alan is barred from sperm banks in China, so she turned to the Internet for help in finding a sperm donor with this video. (Video: Courtesy of Zhang Alan)
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Zhang Alan’s goal was to have a baby before the age of 30. Single and with no plans to get married, she turned to the Internet for help.

“Today we live in a world that is very different from before. We have choices,” she said in a video of her completing an art project. Cutting tailed oblong shapes from paper, she explained that as a single woman she is barred from sperm banks in China. She was looking for a donor.

“If you are the one, contact me,” she said in front of the finished work, the outline of a person surrounded by bright red sperm-shaped cutouts. Her phone number flashed across the screen.

As thousands of parliamentary delegates, advisers and officials meet in Beijing this week to endorse preapproved legislation, citizens like Zhang are watching for changes to China’s stringent rules that limit family size and access to reproductive technology for those outside state-approved family structures.

Chinese officials have been telegraphing the possibility of further loosening or scrapping birth limits in place for more than three decades to combat an intractable demographic crisis that threatens the country’s long-term growth and prosperity.

China was one of few major economies to grow during the coronavirus pandemic last year, a recovery that some economists say put it on track to surpass the United States as the world’s largest by 2028. Yet, the country faces a shrinking labor force, a skewed sex ratio and one of the world’s fastest-aging populations. Data released by the Ministry of Public Security in February showed a 15 percent drop in registered new births in 2020.

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“That’s huge. That would mean China’s birthrate is very close to unprecedented in modern history,” said Yong Cai, a sociology professor focusing on China’s birth policies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bleak demographic predictions have fanned fears that the country will grow old before it grows rich, as decades of restricting family size compound the effects of urbanization and growing wealth in curbing birthrates. China’s population could begin shrinking as early as 2027, according to an estimate from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and citizens over the age of 65 will account for 20 percent of the population by 2025.

“But this is not something you can change using simple policy measures,” Cai said. “This is probably even more challenging than forcing people not to have kids.”

A question of choice

Chinese leaders have been inching toward totally lifting birth restrictions after ending the one-child policy in 2016 and allowing all families to have two offspring failed to revive birthrates.

In February, the National Health Commission said China’s northeast, which is the country’s Rust Belt and home to some of its lowest birthrates, could try new policies and explore totally lifting birth limits. Some areas in the northern province of Heilongjiang already allow couples to have three children.

A five-year economic plan, expected to be ratified by the National People’s Congress (NPC) at the parliamentary session, has dropped the term “family planning” and instead calls for an “inclusive birth policy.” In recent weeks, state media have featured proposals by several delegates calling for a “three-child” policy and other measures. In December, China’s civil affairs minister also urged an “optimized” and “inclusive” birth policy that supports more families in having children.

But it is not clear how open any new policy will be. Access to assisted reproductive technologies is only available to married heterosexual couples. Single women are barred from treatments such as in vitro fertilization or freezing one’s eggs. The Health Commission said last month that it would maintain its ban on single women freezing their eggs, citing health risks and the “controversial” use of egg freezing for delaying childbirth.

Such statements, activists say, reflect the government’s effort to continue controlling who can have children and when.

“They are saying that kids must have fathers and only when there is a legal father can women give birth,” said Xiao Meili, a feminist activist in Beijing. “The government is forcing marriage and children to be bound together.”

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More people like Xiao and Zhang are lobbying for China’s family planning laws to take into account unmarried couples, same-sex partners and single parents. Through Diversified Family, an advocacy group, Zhang and other activists have been lobbying NPC delegates to push for changes such as access to maternity insurance for single women.

“Having a choice is so important,” said Teresa Xu, 31, who is suing a hospital in Beijing for not allowing her to freeze her eggs, in one of the country’s first high-profile lawsuits over the issue. “The state does not get to say when women should want to have children and when they should not.”

Wider problems

 Even if leaders do away with birth limits, demographers say the impact on population trends will be minimal. Urban couples especially, daunted by the cost and pressure of raising a child in China’s hypercompetitive cities, are increasingly forgoing parenthood.

Chen Hongyu, 32, a former journalist turned playwright living in Beijing, said she and her husband resolved not to have children despite pressure from their parents.

“The main reason is that I am a little selfish. I see people around me who have children have to spend 98 percent of their energy,” she said. “I am not willing to sacrifice that time and energy.”

Decades of limited family size have meant that many potential parents, raised in single-child households, are now used to small families. In China’s northeast, news that health officials would lift restrictions on a trial basis elicited a tepid response.

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“People here won’t even have a second child, much less a third or fourth. Ideas about having children have fundamentally changed,” said Wang Linbo, an expert on population at Shenyang Normal University in Liaoning province.

Others worry that easing or doing way with the restrictions will exacerbate workplace discrimination against women of childbearing age, a phenomenon previously mitigated by the birth limits. Employers often prefer to recruit women who have already had their second child as they are unlikely to have another and require maternity leave.

“If there are no corresponding measures giving women more security at work, we worry opening the birth policy will mean more employers are unwilling to hire women or promote them,” said a volunteer behind Employment Gender Discrimination Monitoring Team, a Weibo account where users can report workplace issues.

'Scenes from 'The Handmaid's Tale' '

Experts say improving fertility and birthrates also requires better support for young families, more maternity pay and employment security. A lack of immigration into China also worsens the problem of a diminishing supply of young workers.

“It’s an all-around security net that needs to be built before we can talk about birthrates. If we only talk about lifting the birth limits, it’s empty. It doesn’t work,” said Ye Liu, a senior lecturer in international development at King’s College in London, focusing on China’s family planning policies.

Others fear that officials will reorient the gigantic family-planning bureaucracy, which enforced restrictions through forced abortions, sterilizations and steep fines, toward pushing women to have children. Recent proposals to inspire more births range from lowering the minimum age for marriage to 18 (from 20 for women and 22 for men) to using education to encourage women between the ages of 21 and 29 to “give birth in a timely manner.”

“I am pessimistic that lifting childbirth limits will put women’s status further behind. I feel like scenes from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ could really happen. I just don’t know when,” Chen said.

After posting her video online, Zhang received messages from more than 10 interested sperm donors. She interviewed four. In the end, she had a child last year with a longtime acquaintance who helped her film the video.

Zhang says women in similar situations have approached her asking for advice. As the government overhauls the birth policy, she believes it is women like them who should be considered. “Let everyone have a choice,” she said. “Don’t force women into only having one choice.”

Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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