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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.

Childhood photo, with permission of author.

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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Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©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 Insight

“Oh, How Free America Is” – George Floyd Case Goes Trending on Chinese Social Media

“Are these the ‘human rights’ that you are advocating?”

Manya Koetse

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First published

The George Floyd case and protests are trending on Weibo. In a time of China-US escalating tensions, many Chinese web users are using these developments in global news media to point out American hypocrisy regarding freedom and human rights.

The entire world is talking about the events surrounding the George Floyd case after the shocking bystander video of a white police officer using his knee to pin down an African-American man during an attempted arrest – leading to his death – has been making international headlines.

The case of George Floyd (transcribed as 乔治•弗洛伊德 Qiáozhì Fúluòyīdé in Chinese) and its aftermath have also become a big news topic on Chinese social media this week and is still top trending on Weibo today.

 

George Floyd Incident

 

As now widely known, the George Floyd incident took place in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, when police responded to a shopkeeper’s call about someone potentially using a counterfeit bill. Floyd was sitting in his car when officers arrived at the scene and was asked to step out of his vehicle.

Even though Floyd was compliant and unarmed, the bystander video shows how he was held face-down on the ground, the officer pressing his knee into the side of his neck, while Floyd was begging for air, literally stating: “I can’t breathe.”

While the officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for over seven minutes, the 46-year-old could be seen losing consciousness and going limp.

The video of the fatal arrest went viral on social media overnight, leading to people protesting in Minneapolis and elsewhere across the US, demanding justice over the fatal arrest.

The four officers involved in George Floyd’s death have since been fired from the Minneapolis Police Department.

Tensions in Minnesota have now reached a boiling point and protests have escalated to riots and lootings, leading to the governor Tim Walz of Minnesota ordering the deployment of the National Guard to restore order in the city. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey declared a state of emergency.

On Friday morning local time, CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez – a reporter of color – was arrested and handcuffed on live television together with his cameraman and producer while reporting on the situation in Minneapolis. Although the CNN crew was released shortly after, this incident also further intensified the debate on discrimination and racism in America.

 

Weibo Discussions

 

On Weibo, news of the George Floyd incident and the Minneapolis protests is trending with various related hashtags.

One of the top hashtags at the time of writing regarding the protests is “CNN Crew Arrested by Police” (#CNN报道团队被警方逮捕#) -50 million views-, “Minneapolis Enters State of Emergency” (#美国明尼阿波利斯市进入紧急状态#) with 150 million views and “U.S. Riots” (#美国暴乱#) with 240 million views.

Other related hashtags are:

#美国多地抗议警察跪压黑人致死# “American Protests over Cop Pushing Down and Killing Black Man” (3+ million views)

#美警察压颈致黑人死亡引发抗议# “Protests Erupt over Case of Black Man Dying after American Police Applies Pressure on Neck” (6+ million views)

#明尼苏达骚乱成聚众哄抢# “Minnesota Riots Turn to Looting” (266,000+ views)

#美国示威者暴力冲击3家警局# “American Protesters Violently Attack Three Police Stations” (120 million views)

#美国明尼苏达州骚乱# “U.S. Minnesota Riots” (29+ million views)

The news regarding Floyd and the American protests and riots are attracting thousands of reactions on Chinese social media today. Some threads, such as those regarding the arrest of the CNN reporter, are also being heavily censored.

Many of the Weibo responses to the news of George Floyd and its aftermath are incorporating these developments into a bigger framework of strained US-China relations, pointing out the supposed American hypocrisy for criticizing China regarding freedom and human rights, especially in light of the COVID19-crisis and Hong Kong protests.

“Oh how free America is,” one popular comment on Weibo said (“多么自由的米国”), with others saying things such as: “Are these the human rights you are advocating?”

News of CNN reporter Jimenez being arrested by the American state patrol was also shared on Weibo by the Communist Youth League, leading to many reactions criticizing America’s “freedom of press.”

“So this is so-called equality? Freedom? Democracy?”

Another user writes: “So this is the freedom I’m yearning for? Is this called freedom?”

Some Weibo users are sharing compilations showing American officers using excessive force and violence while beating and shooting down people and animals during their work.

Although criticism of the US is dominating Chinese online discussions of the latest developments in America, social media users also show their support for the protesters.

“I fully support the movement of Black Americans fighting for the rule of law, equality, and freedom,” one popular comment- receiving over 14,000 likes – said (@平衡的小窝).

Many commenters are writing to express their disgust at the death of George Floyd, calling the police officers “ruthless” and “sadistic.”

There are also some commenters with a different stance on the matter. One blogger with over 123,000 followers writes:

“The riots erupting in the US will surely have a negative impact on society. But looking at it from another perspective, it still makes me envious because they have the guts to speak up, the courage to resist. If such a thing would happen in China, would you stand up?”

By Manya Koetse

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©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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China Books & Literature

From “Voice of the People” to “Traitor of China”: The Rise and Fall of Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary

How a Weibo journal got caught up in pandemic politics: the Wuhan Diary controversy explained.

Manya Koetse

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Fang Fang’s critical online account of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan was widely celebrated before it was strongly condemned. This is a look into one of the biggest controversies in China’s online media spheres this spring, and a breakdown of how this acclaimed Chinese novelist went from an ally in times of lockdown, to a traitor during pandemic politics.

 
This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, original publication in German by Goethe Institut China (forthcoming), see Goethe.de: WE…WEI…WHAT? Manya Koetse erklärt das chinesische Internet.
 

As China is gradually getting back to business after the COVID-19 crisis, the coronavirus crisis is still dominating social media discussions. But the way the virus comes up in online debates has changed over the past few weeks, as the global health crisis has become increasingly politicized. Rather than a show of global solidarity, the pandemic has spawned a lot of finger-pointing in online media and on social networking sites across the world.

Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is doing more, which leader is doing better, where is the crisis mismanaged? What is fake news, what is truth? Who writes or says what for which reason?

Somewhere within these corona media wars and political games, there’s the controversy regarding Wuhan Diary, which recently became a heated topic of debate on Weibo and beyond. 

 

FANG FANG AND WUHAN DIARY

“Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say, and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to”

 

Wuhan Diary (武汉日记[1]) is written by the 65-year-old acclaimed Chinese author Wang Fang, better known as Fang Fang (方方).[2] It is an online account of the 2020 Hubei lockdown, originally published on WeChat and Weibo.

Throughout the lockdown period in January, February, and March, Fang Fang wrote about life in quarantine in province capital Wuhan, the heart of the epicenter, documenting everything from the weather to the latest news and the personal stories and tragedies behind the emerging crisis.

Fang’s 60-post diary was published on her Weibo account (@方方), which had some 3,8 million followers at the time, from late January shortly after the lockdown began, until late March when the end of the lockdown was announced.

Shortly after starting her online account, Fang’s daily journal gained wide traction. Amid the panic and uncertainty of the early days of the lockdown, social media flooded with rumors, fake news, and misinformation. Chinese web users were looking for alternative reliable sources to find out what was really happening in Wuhan.

Fang’s online journal provided people with information regarding the new coronavirus, but it also captured the emotions and struggles of the people in Wuhan. She soon became a go-to first-hand account of what was going on in the city; she was the voice of a quarantined city in distress. At a time when people were craving unfiltered information and distrusting official media, her words became an anchor for many in a sea of confusing news flows.

The fact that Fang is a respected author contributed to the popularity of her online writings. With her compassionate representations of everyday life in Wuhan, she has since long been an important author for the regional literature. Her writings have drawn attention ever since the 1980s, when she won an award for the best National Novella (Landscape 风景, 1987). She has remained a relevant author throughout the years, even receiving the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize in 2010.

In documenting life in Wuhan during the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Fang touched upon many sensitive issues. Besides writing about problems such as overcrowded hospitals and mask shortages, she also directly questioned how authorities were handling the crisis and warned other writers for propaganda manipulation.

With the death of ‘whistleblower’ doctor Li Wenliang on the night of February 6, Chinese social media saw an outpouring of anger at Chinese authorities and state media. The public’s anger showed itself at other moments too, both online and offline.

While many of Fang’s publications on social media were censored and her Weibo account was temporarily blocked, the online Wuhan Diary only gained more attention, with the daily entries (or screenshots) spreading across WeChat like wildfire. “Dear internet censors, you should let Wuhan people speak,”[3] Fang wrote in February.

By demanding more transparency and accountability from Chinese (local) leadership, Fang was saying the things so many people wanted to say and was asking the questions so many wanted answers to.

 

CHANGING US-VERSUS-THEM DYNAMICS

“Whose side is she on, anyway?”

 

It did not take long for Fang’s online journal to gain international attention. In mid-February, news articles covering the ‘forbidden diary’ from Wuhan also appeared in foreign media.

Although Fang’s online writings received some backlash before – her critics mainly disliked how much of her diary entries were not fact-based but “merely hearsay” -, it wasn’t until April when public opinion really shifted against Wuhan Diary after it became known that an international edition of her diary was on presale through Amazon.

First, there was the announcement of the English version with the title “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from the Original Epicenter” (later changed to “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches from a Quarantined City”, translation by Michael Berry) published by Harper Collins; then, a German edition translated by Michael Kahn-Ackermann and issued by Hoffman Camp Press.

The criticism that Fang Fang has since been facing on Chinese social media is unprecedented. Rather than a Wuhan ally, many of her online readers now think of her as a “traitor” to China[4], saying she is airing China’s dirty laundry to make a profit, and that she only writes about negativity and darkness to play to the tune of those countries slamming China. The author has seen an online stream of death threats and violent comments.

Fang Fang arguably would not have received as much backlash if China had not come to face such international scrutiny in light of the global spread of COVID-19. At the time of the early coronavirus outbreak and Fang’s first diary entry, the corona crisis was still a national one, and to some extent even a regional one. Many saw Fang, a Wuhan native and acclaimed author, as a spokesperson for the people in times of fear, uncertainty, and collective suffering.

But as China increasingly came under international pressure over how it handled the epidemic in its early phases, anti-foreign and nationalistic sentiments grew by the day. With China being blamed for causing the pandemic – American President Trump even suggesting it did so deliberately – waves of angry nationalism flooded Chinese social media, and Wuhan Diary was caught in the changing us-versus-them dynamics of China’s COVID-19 crisis.

In the eyes of many Chinese web users, a translated version of Fang’s critical account of the Wuhan outbreak would only provide opponents of China with more ammunition. The upcoming translation’s description on Amazon by itself was a source of outrage for many, allegedly putting too much emphasis on China’s mishandling of the early outbreak. The fact that the original title of the book emphasized that COVID-19 started in Wuhan[5] was also something many netizens found offensive.  ‘Whose side is she on anyway?’, they wondered.

“Western countries are attacking the motherland, and Fang Fang is knowingly giving them the bullets in advance,” one Weibo commenter from Beijing wrote.

 

AN ONGOING ISSUE

Your Wuhan Diary will only worsen Western misconceptions about China!”

 

The Wuhan Diary controversy seems to be an ongoing one. By early May, it was reported that at least two Chinese academics were reprimanded for speaking out in support of Fang Fang. Online discussions continue. By now, the Weibo hashtag “Fang Fang Diary” (#方方日记#) has received over 670 million views, with other scattered hashtags also drawing in thousands of responses.

On Fang Fang’s Weibo page, now followed by more than 4,6 million web users, the author has responded to the recent controversy and allegations in multiple lengthy posts, claiming that most of her attackers, who blame her for only writing negative things, did not even read her diary. She argues that her written account is one of a trapped Wuhan resident in the middle of a catastrophe and that it should not be taken out of its this context.

Fang Fang is not the first Chinese writer to face online backlash for how ‘China’ is represented to the outside world. Besides the fact that Chinese literature is virtually inseparable from politics, there is an enormous number of Chinese web users ready to be outraged about China being misconstrued, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise suffering foreign insult.

This kind of angry nationalism often surfaces on the Chinese internet, and it has done so since the early days of social media in China. According to Ying Jiang, the author of Cyber-Nationalism in China, the roots of this “angry nationalism” expressed by today’s Chinese netizens can be traced back to China’s modern history, and more specifically to the “Century of Humiliation” (mid-1800s until after WWII) during which China faced many hardships brought about by foreign powers.

This history has been an important component of Chinese education campaigns for decades, and along with the economic prospering of China, the country has seen the rise of a more patriotic populace that is nationalistic in a way that is also increasingly anti-foreign.

Especially during noteworthy times such as the coronavirus outbreak – an opportunity for China to establish more international leadership -, negative media representations of the country, its government, and how it handled the COVID-19 crisis are sensitive and prone to controversy. A telling example is that three journalists of The Wall Street Journal were expelled from China in February over the paper’s refusal to apologize for a published opinion article titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.”

The online anger over Fang’s translated work will not die out any time soon. On Weibo, discussions continue. “Fang Fang, your Wuhan Diary, that’s merely hearsay and overly subjective, will only worsen Western misconceptions about China, and will only make more Western people discriminate against Chinese! You’ll go down in history as a disgrace!”, one Weibo user writes in early May.

Although many will not agree on how Wuhan Diary will be remembered, all the commotion and criticism has only increased the public’s awareness about the book’s existence; it will surely go down in the history of the COVID-19 impact in China, and the online media wars that came with it.

The English translation of Wuhan Diary is expected to be released via Amazon on May 19 (link), the English audiobook on May 28 (link) the German translation is expected June 9. On the China Digital Times website, Josh Rudolph has also translated parts of Fang’s work.

 

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

For more COVID-19 related articles, please click here.

 

[1] Also known in Chinese as: 武汉封城日记.

[2] Fang Fang is the pen name of Wang Fang.

[3] Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

[4] Mainly using Chinese terms汉奸 and 卖国贼, both meaning “traitor” or more specifically “traitor to China.”

[5] Also see the original German title of the translation: “Wuhan Diary – Das Verbotenen Tagebuch aus der Stadt, in der die Corona-Krise began” [The Forbidden Diary from the City where the Coronacrisis Began].

Sources and further reading

Adlakha, Hemant. 2020.”Fang Fang: The ‘Conscience of Wuhan’ Amid Coronavirus Quarantine.” The Diplomat , March 23 https://thediplomat.com/2020/03/fang-fang-the-conscience-of-wuhan-amid-coronavirus-quarantine/[5.3.2010].

Fumian, Marco. 2020. “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (April 2020) https://u.osu.edu/mclc/online-series/marco-fumian/?fbclid=IwAR32HvM6WO0JHIhFFIY85bd-qyOzGEfXrZpp6S0SxbiTQrGCjwe_n-jL63Y [5.1.2020].

Leung, Laifong. 2016. Contemporary Chinese Fiction Writers: Biography, Bibliography, and Critical Assessment. New York & London: Routledge.

Rudolph, Jodh. 2020. “Translation: Backlash To Wuhan Diary “Reveals A Serious Problem Society Must Correct.” China Digital Times, April 21 https://chinadigitaltimes.net/2020/04/translation-backlash-to-wuhan-diary-reveals-a-serious-problem-society-must-correct/ [5.2.2020].

Wu, Yuwen. 2020. “Chinese propagandists don’t want you to read this diary on the coronavirus lockdown in Wuhan.” The Independent, March 2 https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/coronavirus-wuhan-lockdown-fangfang-diary-china-dr-li-a9368961.html [3.2.2020].

Ying Jiang. 2012. Cyber-Nationalism in China: Challenging Western Media Portrayals of Internet Censorship in China. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press.

Zhao, Kiki. 2020. “Opinion: The Coronavirus Story is Too Big for China to Spin.” The New York Times, Feb 14 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/china-coronavirus-social-media.html [5.2.2020].

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was written for Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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