Family planning

China’s new family planning policy comes from an old playbook

FACULTY Q&A

China’s universal three-child policy was enacted last August to boost the country’s birth rate, after a two-child limit put in place more than five years ago failed.

Yun Zhouassistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, discusses the history of China’s one-child policy, which ended in 2016, and its lasting impact on the current three-child policy, the persistence son preference and the low fertility “problem” in China.

Why has China moved from a one-child policy to a three-child policy?

When China implemented the one-child policy in 1980, the country’s total fertility rate had already fallen dramatically throughout the 1970s. The consensus among scholars is that the one-child policy unique was an integral part of China’s efforts to achieve development goals after the Cultural Revolution. After a tumultuous decade, the party-state was eager to recover and re-establish its political legitimacy and saw the stimulation of economic development as essential to achieving this. Based on pseudo-scientific population projections, limiting birth to one child per married heterosexual couple was seen as the way to achieve a population size perceived to be most optimal for China’s economic development.

The universal two-child policy in 2016 and the most recent three-child policy are designed to address issues related to persistently low fertility, such as the rapid aging of the population, the growing need for pensions, the shrinking pool of labor and the reduction of the demographic dividend. Fundamentally, these relaxations are not intended to extend reproductive rights. Again, the main objective of the new policies is to manage the population to achieve the economic and development goals desired by the state.

In these policies, birth is restricted to heterosexual married couples. Single women who wish to have children still face many obstacles in obtaining maternity benefits. The reproductive rights of LGBTQ people are completely invisible.

Are there any changes in the Chinese preference for yarn?

There are a few changes, but there are some remarkable consistencies. According to the latest 2020 census data, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) remains unbalanced and above its natural level of approximately 105 male live births per 100 female live births. The official 2020 census report puts China’s SRB at 111.3 in 2020.

One of my working papers looks at the sexual preference attitude of highly educated urban Chinese women to offspring. I have found that the preference for sons persists in this group and, paradoxically, among women who otherwise support gender equality. However, their reasoning is quite nuanced. Some women want sons so their children can be spared the gender discrimination they themselves face. They also consider raising girls in a discriminatory society to be emotionally draining work. Of course, this raises an interesting question: despite the nuanced reasoning of preference for sons, to what extent will these reasonings and preference challenge the existing patriarchal order?

Why won’t a baby boom happen in China?

My research focuses primarily on highly educated urban individuals. For this group, they frequently cite enormous financial and time constraints as barriers that prevent them from having more than one child. Women also consider that having a successful career is fundamentally incompatible with having several children. These women often want a life that is not limited to the private sphere. The one-child policy also has an impact on people’s fertility desires. For those who grew up as single children and whose peers are overwhelmingly single children, the one-child policy has also shaped their imaginations of what an ideal family looks like.

Low fertility is not a problem unique to China. What would you recommend the Chinese government do?

When I teach fertility in my classes, I always ask my students: Why is low fertility a problem? And if it’s a problem, who is it a problem for? Is low fertility a problem because it poses problems for the state? Is low fertility necessarily a problem for individuals if individuals actively choose not to have children? When is low fertility also a problem for individuals? It is always important for us to be aware of these issues when we problematize fertility or consider low fertility as a problem – or not.

These new policies—universal two- and three-child policies—evolved from the old manual of managing population and female reproduction for economic and political ends. I always say that population policy must focus on human rights, especially the rights of women (and biological parents).