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Millions of missing women: China grapples with legacy of one-child policy as population ages

Tue 15 Nov 2022 01.01 GMT

The Chinese government has tried to boost the birthrate by partially lifting the one-child policy but these measures failed to trigger a baby boom. Composite: Guardian Design/EPA/ZUMA Press Wire/REX/Shutterstock

By 2050, analysts predict one in four people in China will be retired and the working population will have shrunk by 10%, with huge economic implications

Helen Davidson in Taipei, and Verna Yu

Ming Ming, a boisterous six-year-old, longs to have a playmate, but his mother is adamant that she will not have another child.

“No way! One is quite enough,” Li Hong gasps. “Childcare, after-school activities, tutoring … you want them to have a good education but it costs money. We’re just ordinary working folks, not the super rich. The cost of bringing up two kids would kill us!” says the 43-year-old supermarket cashier from the southern province of Guangdong.

Li herself was born just before the one-child policy began in 1980. As an only child, she says the cost of bringing up her son on top of caring for her elderly parents and those of her husband were her main concerns.

The Covid pandemic has not helped. It began when her son was starting kindergarten, but the regular class suspensions meant she could not work full-time. Looking after a toddler all day in a small flat left her constantly exhausted. “I simply don’t have the energy for two,” she said.

Women are ‘invisible’

For three-and-a-half decades, the one-child policy that was meant to control the population exacted a huge social and human cost on Chinese society. Forced abortions, sterilisations, the use of intrauterine contraceptive devices as well as hefty financial penalties left physical and emotional scars on millions of women and traumatised families.

Thirty-five years after the one-child policy’s implementation, China is left with one of the lowest birthrates in the world.

Fearing the adverse social effects of an ageing population and a looming shortage of working-age people, the Chinese government has tried to boost the birthrate by partially lifting the one-child policy in 2013 and allowing couples to have two children if one of the spouses was an only child. In late 2015, the authorities announced all married couples could legally have two children.

But these measures failed to trigger a baby boom: In 2016, China reported 18.46 million births – just 1.4 million higher than the average number of births in the previous five years.

The figure was well below the increase in births that the government had projected, which was between 2.3 and 4.3 million a year. Annual births continued to drop thereafter: from 17.23 million in 2017 to 15.23 million in 2018, 14.65 million in 2019, 12 million in 2020, then to 10.62 million in 2021. The authorities further eased the birth limit in 2021, raising it to three children per couple.

A child poses for photos at Zaoyuan Revolutionary Former Site in Yan’an city, in China’s northwest Shaanxi province Photograph: Jade Gao/AFP/Getty Images

“The declining birthrates seem to be irreversible, but the government does not have a gameplan,” Dr Ye Liu, a senior lecturer in international development at King’s College London says. “It’s all about the power of men over women and utilisation of women’s bodies as economic means. In short, men make policies for women. In the recent party congress, there were many promises made but none for women. Women are ‘invisible’.”

Chinese scholars campaigned to scrap the one-child policy for more than a decade, on the grounds that the country’s total fertility rate was worryingly behind the replacement rate. In the 1970s, the total fertility rate (births per woman) fell from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.75 in 1979. In the 1980s, the rate hovered above the replacement level of 2.1 that would allow the population to replace itself, but since the 1990s, it has declined to below the replacement level. The 2010 and 2020 censuses yielded total fertility rates of 1.18 and 1.30 respectively. This further fell to an alarming 1.15 in 2021, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics.

More sticks than carrots

Key factors behind the low fertility rate include the rising costs of bringing up children amid rapid economic development in the past three decades, as well as the lack of social welfare provisions for families such as free or low-cost childcare, academic studies have found.

Fewer young Chinese people are getting married, and those who do are having children at a much older age, or not at all. When asked why, they routinely cite the rising cost of living, stagnating professional mobility, and the pressure of traditional gender roles on women.

India is projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in 2023

Population estimates for 1 January each year to 2021 and medium variant projections thereafter

Mei Fong, a communications officer for Human Rights Watch and author of One Child, a book on the impact of the policy, says Beijing has “relied more on sticks than carrots” in trying to reverse the decline.

“The government’s long history of restricting women’s reproduction rights through abusive and sometimes violent means has created massive trauma for women and instilled a deep fear and suspicion. Given all this, the question is less why these recent methods to raise births didn’t work, and more – how could it possibly?” Fong says.

Fong noted the one-child policy also exacerbated a traditional preference for male children, leading to a huge gender gap. “How can the country now shore up birthrates, with millions of missing women?”

China’s population growth this year slowed to its lowest level in more than six decades, and is expected to peak imminently – if it hasn’t already. By 2050, analysts predict one in four people in China will be retired and the working population will have shrunk by 10%, creating huge economic implications. It is one of the key challenges facing its leader, Xi Jinping, who just this month began his third term.

Addressing worries that the shrinking population could hurt the world’s second-biggest economy, Xi pledged at the 20th party congress to enact policies to boost birthrates and tackle population ageing.

The government has tried to address some of the social complaints with new policies on tax deductions, childcare, parental leave, and the costs associated with raising children. It banned the $1bn private tutoring industry to improve study-life balance and assist parents who couldn’t afford the growing competition.

But these measures are yet to have a significant impact and were accompanied by other punitive policies that have angered feminist groups, including mandatory “cooling off” periods for divorces, and policy directives to discourage abortions a procedure widely used during the one-child policy era, with far less stigma attached to it in China than abroad.

The attempts to improve the economic prospects for young people have also been stymied by the pandemic, China’s zero-Covid policy, entrenched overwork of employees, and the declining number of jobs for graduates. Recent data found almost one in five young people in China were unemployed, while others are rebelling against China’s version of capitalism with anti-productivity trends like “lying flat” or “touching fish”. Inequitable healthcare access remains a huge issue in China, particularly for rural-living and migrant women.

“These days, unless you’re rich business owners or comfortable civil servants, who can have the luxury of more than one kid?” asked Li.

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