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(Op-Ed) Not All About the Money: Why the One Child Generation Aren’t Keen on Having More Babies

The ‘Two Child Policy’ has not led to a baby boom, but are the costs to blame?

Frankie Huang

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China’s quest for more babies is a hot topic in the media recently. News reports generally explain the country’s declining birth rates through an economic lens. But by ignoring the social and historical background that has shaped the ways Chinese young parents think about family life today, they miss the essential point, Frankie Huang argues in this op-ed contribution for What’s on Weibo.

 

Recently, various proposed measured aimed at encouraging young Chinese couples to have more children are making headlines, from a ‘maternity fund’ tax for the childless, to a rumored Third Child Policy.

News reports often interpret China’s low birth rates through an economic lens, identifying costs as the determining factor in people’s decision to postpone a second child, or eschew one entirely.

But what’s missing from this picture is the crucial background factor that lays the foundation to how young Chinese parents dimensionalize family life, shaped by their own childhood.

 

During Mao’s reign, policies and propaganda directed citizens to have more children, even banning birth control for a time.”

 

Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government has treated population planning as a cog in the planned economy. Citizens are regarded as units of consumption and production, and fertility is a tap that can be turned up and down as required to support economic growth.

During Mao’s reign, policies and propaganda directed citizens to have more children, even banning birth control for a time. But when overpopulation threatened China’s growth, a strict bottleneck in the form of One Child Policy was slapped into place.

Propaganda poster from 1950s, promoting bigger families.

In the thirty years since its implementation, the One Child Policy remains the largest experiment in social engineering the world has ever seen. The Chinese government claims that it has prevented 400 million births. But when faced with a rapidly aging population and a shrinking labor force with which to support it, the government did a swift about-face to rally for more babies.

 

People are not avoiding more children simply because they are too immature and too selfish.”

 

In the two years since China officially ended the One Child Policy, people have not eagerly embraced the new policy that allows them to have more children, and birth rates remain sluggish.

The leading explanations for this phenomenon focus on logistics; couples are faced with high cost of living, real estate prices, stressful work pressure, the exorbitant price of child care, and aging parents. While present economic conditions make it difficult for families to afford more children, this type of thinking falls prey to the notion that young Chinese people are what behavioral economist Richard Thaler calls Econs, beings who are able to make perfectly logical economic decisions without being influenced by idiosyncrasies that make up who they are.

True, another popular explanation blames the “little emperor effect” – the highly individualistic and self-centered disposition of those who grew up as the focal point of the entire family unit. But this paints a rather unflattering and reductive picture of the mentality of the One Child generation. People are not avoiding more children simply because they are too immature and too selfish.

To understand how many from the One Child generation understand family and parenthood, we must take into account how the One Child Policy made the single child family normative by erasing the experience of having siblings from the lives of millions.

 

None of my friends ever wished out loud that they have a sibling, and I certainly didn’t feel like there was something missing in my life.”

 

I was born in 1980s Beijing, and I was the only child of an only child. I had a happy, fulfilling childhood with many happy memories. I have no recollection of ever thinking it strange that every family only has one child. If anything, it was too mundane a detail to be considered, it would have been like thinking it strange that the sky was blue.

I did learn the concept of siblings through stories and cartoons, but they were fantasy, removed from my reality. Maybe a precocious child would have asked why there were so many stories about brothers and sisters and yet nobody has one of their own, but I was not that clever. After all, none of my friends ever wished out loud that they have a sibling, and I certainly didn’t feel like there was something missing in my life.

When I moved to the United States in third grade, I met children my age with siblings for the first time in my life, and over the next couple of decades, I learned much about the joys of having them. I even considered asking my mother if she’d have another child, though I never wanted it enough to ask.

I couldn’t really imagine living with a little brother or sister, I just knew that it would change everything. My husband has a little sister, and they are extremely close. Watching them interact sometimes feels like seeing another species with an additional vital organ I do not possess.

 

The One Child generation lack a deep emotional connection with the distinctive experience of having siblings.”

 

I’ve never felt like my life has been incomplete without siblings. My warm feelings towards the idea of having a sibling is that of a detached observer, markedly different from having the happy memories of growing up with siblings. When it comes to starting a family of my own, I feel inclined to reproduce when I loved about my childhood, and improve what I didn’t like, and I liked being the only child just fine.

Image: from classic story about two shepherd sisters, a story the author grew up on.

This, I think, is a mental state shared by many of my peers in China, and it keeps them from having any strong emotional engagement with the idea of having more than one child. As natural as it feels for people in most other countries to have more than one child, it feels natural for the One Child generation of China to have just one. They lack a deep emotional connection with the distinctive experience of having siblings to feel the strong need to bestow it upon their children.

This probably contributed to the strong backlash against the recent People’s Daily article “Giving Birth Is Family Business, But Also A National Issue” (“生娃是家事也是国事“), in which the author glibly noted that “(..) having kids has a special meaning for Chinese people. Not wanting to have kids is just a lifestyle of passively giving in to society’s pressures.” People often draw on the happy memories from when their youth to shape their present and future, and they would not appreciate being told their preferences is just them “passively giving into society’s pressures.”

 

What is normal and common for people in other countries is a great and terrifying unknown for couples in China.”

 

The frightening effectiveness of the One Child Policy is that it took just thirty-odd years for a generation to lose touch with something as normal as a multi-child household. Policies, incentives and punishments can work to a point, but it will take years before having more than one child is normalized once more in people’s hearts and minds.

For now, young couples can only use their existing knowledge to imagine what life is like with more than one offspring. Is it simply doubling the resources and energy required by one child? Is each additional child just the most exhausting game of multiplication in the world? It is no wonder that young couples are agitated and generally unenthused over the prospects of raising more than one child.

What is normal and common for people in other countries is a great and terrifying unknown for couples in China. And this anxiety would not be alleviated by propaganda that proclaim child birth as a civic duty, nor policies that reward childbirth and penalize childlessness.

What they need is to be reassured that additional children can be more than just a larger economic burden, that there’s an innumerable joy to be had too.

By Frankie Huang
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©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Frankie Huang is a writer and strategist living in Shanghai. She was born in Beijing and raised in New Jersey. Having lived all her life wedged between the proverbial East and West, she is interested in the ways globalization cross-pollinate cultures and lead to different new growths.

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China and Covid19

The ‘Blank White Paper Protest’ in Beijing and Online Discussions on “Outside Forces”

As people in Beijing, Shanghai, and other places take to the streets holding up white papers, some have dubbed this the “A4 Revolution.”

Manya Koetse

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A majority of social media commenters support those who have recently taken to the streets, using blank sheets as a sign of protest against censorship and stringent Covid measures. But there are also online voices warning Chinese young people not to be influenced by ‘external forces.’

Over the past few days, there have been scenes of unrest and protest movements in various places across China.

While there were protests in Shanghai for the second night in a row, Beijing also saw crowds gathering around the Liangmahe area in the city’s Chaoyang District on Sunday night.

Some videos showed crowds softly singing the song “Farewell” (送别) in commemoration of those who lost their lives during the deadly inferno in Urumqi.

Later, people protested against stringent Covid measures.

“The crowds at Liangmahe are amazing,” some people on Weibo commented.

Photos and videos coming from the area showed how people were holding up blank sheets of white paper.

Earlier this weekend, students in Nanjing and Xi’an also held up blank paper sheets in protest of censorship and as the only ‘safe’ way to say what could otherwise not be said. This form of protest also popped up during the Hong Kong protests, as also described in the recent book by Louisa Lim (Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong).

The recurring use of blank paper sheets led to some dubbing the protests an “A4 Revolution.”

“When can we have freedom of speech? Maybe it can start at Beijng’s Liangmahe,” one person on Weibo wrote on Sunday night.

Another Beijing-based netizen wrote: “Before going to sleep I saw what was happening in Liangmahe on my WeChat Moments and then I looked at Weibo and saw that the Xicheng area had added 279 new Covid cases. I started thinking about my own everyday life and the things I am doing. I can’t help but feel a sense of isolation, because I can’t fight and do not dare to raise my voice.”

“I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in 2022. I didn’t dare to believe this is happening in Beijing. I do not dare to believe that again it will all have been useless tomorrow morning,” one Weibo user commented.

During the night, various people at the scene shouted out things such as “we want to go out and work,” and other hopes they have. One person yelled: “I want to go out and see a movie!”

“I want to go and see a movie.”

The phrase “I wanna go watch a movie” (“我要看电影”) was also picked up on social media, with some people commenting : “I am not interested in political regimes, I just want to be able to freely see a movie.” “I want to see a movie! I want to sit in a cinema and watch a movie! I want to watch a movie that is uncensored!”

Despite social media users showing a lot of support for students and locals standing up and making their voices heard, not everyone was supportive of this gathering in Beijing. Some suggested that since Liangmahe is near Beijing’s foreign embassy district, there must be some evil “foreign forces” meddling and creating unrest.

Others expressed that people were starting to demand too many different things instead of solely focusing on China’s zero Covid policies, losing the momentum of the original intention of the protest.

Political commentator Hu Xijin (胡锡进) also posted about the recent unrest on his Weibo account on Sunday night:

The people have the right to express their opinions, and you may have good and honest aspirations and have the intention to express legitimate demands. But I want to remind you that many things have their own rules, and when everyone participates in the movement, its direction might become very difficult for ordinary participants to continue to control, and it can easily to be used or even hijacked by separate forces, which may eventually turn into a flood that destroys all of our lives.”

Hu also called on people to keep striving to solve existing problems, but to stay clear-headed, suggesting that it is important for the people and the government to maintain unity in this challenging time.

The term “outside forces” or “external forces” (外部势力) increasingly popped up in social media discussions on late Sunday night.

“I worry a lot of meddling by external forces. Let’s be vigilant of a color revolution. I just hope things will get better,” one netizen from Hubei wrote.

“Young people should not be incited by a few phrases and blindly follow. Everyone will approve of people rationally defending their rights, but stay far away from color revolutions.”

The idea that foreign forces meddle in Chinese affairs for their own agenda has come up various times over the past years, during the Hong Kong protests but also during small-scale protests, such as a local student protest in Chengdu in 2021.

The term “color revolution” is recurring in these kind of discussions, with some netizens suggesting that foreign forces, such as the CIA, are trying to get local people to cause unrest through riots or demonstrations to undermine the stability of the government.

“It’s not always external forces, it can also just be opposition,” one person on Weibo replied: “In every country you’ll have different opinions.”

“What outside forces?” another commenter said: “I’m not an external force! I am just completely fed up with the Covid measures!”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Miranda Barnes

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China and Covid19

Tribute to Urumqi at Shanghai’s Wulumqi Road

In Shanghai, people paid tribute to the victims of the Ulumqi fire by lighting candles, and also found other ways to vent their frustrations.

Manya Koetse

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Image by @导筒directube

It has been a restless Saturday night in several places across China. Following the unrest in Urumqi after a devastating fire, various places across the country have seen people gathering, chanting together, and taking their anger to the streets.

There is anger about excessive Covid measures, long lockdowns, and how it has all brought suffering to many people.

One place where people gathered is Shanghai’s Wulumuqi Road, a street named after Urumqi (it is actually ‘Urumqi Road’ but the English name is commonly spelled as Wulumuqi).

In Shanghai, people paid tribute to the victims of the Urumqi fire by lighting candles, but also found other ways to vent frustrations related to the current Covid measures.

Some at the scene, for example, wore face masks with ‘404’ written on them – referring to the recurring online censorship in light of various epidemic-related incidents (404 is the common error code given when a page or file can no longer be found).

They also chanted for “freedom,” told the Covid QR ‘venue codes’ to go f*ck themselves, sang the The Internationale in Chinese, and held up white papers in protest (this has been a recurring sign of protest).

On Weibo, there was a flood of comments related to the Shanghai gathering.

“Don’t let history repeat itself. Please, everybody, protect yourself, go home and rest in time, remember this passion of yours and change your surrounding by following your own goals.”

Although social media users showed support for the protest in Shanghai, a majority of commenters also were worried about people placing themselves in harm’s way, reminding those on the streets to “protect themselves” no matter what.

After 3:00 AM, local time, Weibo shut down live commenting on the Shanghai topic.

On Twitter, Shanghai-based journalist Eva Rammeloo (@eefjerammeloo) reported that around 4:00 am local time, police reinforcement arrived at the scene to disperse the crowds, with some people allegedly being arrested.

“We’re all mourning Urumqi in our own ways,” one person on Weibo commented: “I think you’re really brave.”

Read more about the “11.24” unrest in China here.

By Manya Koetse 

If you appreciate what we do, please subscribe here or support us by donating.

Featured image by @导筒directube

 

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