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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

Looking at Your Phone While Crossing the Road Will Now Cost You Money in Zhejiang

Pedestrians looking at their phones while crossing the road are getting a red light in Zhejiang.

Manya Koetse

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Zhejiang Province in eastern China has recently launched a new policy: pedestrians crossing the road while looking at their phone risk getting a 50 RMB ($7) fine.

The policy has been attracting the attention of netizens on Chinese social media, where the so-called “Bowed head clan” (dītóuzú 低头族) – a slang word for smartphone-addicted people – has been a recurring hot topic.

People paying more attention to their phone than watching traffic while crossing the road can lead to very dangerous situations. Some graphic videos making their rounds on Weibo today show security camera footage of people getting run over by cars while looking at their phone.

The majority of people responding to the hashtag “Should people be fined for looking down to their phone while crossing the road?” (#低头玩手机过马路该罚款吗#) agree that this kind of behaviour is a risk to traffic safety, but some wonder if a small fine would be effective in combating this problem.

Some cities in China have introduced sidewalks with a “phone lane” and “no phone lane” over previous years, with Chongqing being the first city to do so in 2014.

Mobile phone sidewalk in Chonqgqing. Source https://tech.qq.com

As of earlier this year, the Pedestrian Council of Australia is also looking to implement a law that makes it possible to fine pedestrians who cross the road while looking at their phones.

In Honolulu, the ‘distracted walking law’ already makes it illegal for people to be distracted by their cellphones while walking in a crosswalk.

“Fine them!”, some commenters on Weibo say: “And also fine those people using their phone while driving their electric bicycles!”

“I’m not sure about the fine,” another person says: “I only know I bumped into a tree today walking looking at my phone..”

For many commenters, however, the issue is a no-brainer: “Just don’t use your phone while crossing the road. Personal safety comes first.”

Also read: The ‘Bowed Head Clan’ (低头族): Mother Watches Phone While Son Drowns in Pool

By Manya Koetse, with contributions by Jialing Xie.

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

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Arts & Entertainment

‘American Factory’ Sparks Debate on Weibo: Pro-China Views and Critical Perspectives

‘American Factory’ stirs online discussions in China.

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Award-winning documentary American Factory is not just sparking conversations in the English-language social media sphere. The film is also igniting discussions in the PRC, where pro-China views are trumpeted, while some critical perspectives are being censored.

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Even as China posts its lowest industrial output growth since 2002, Weibo’s ongoing reaction to Netflix documentary American Factory is rife with declarations of the Chinese manufacturing sector’s impending victory over its US rival. This, however, is not the full story.

The first documentary distributed by Higher Ground Productions, owned by former US President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, American Factory painted a damning picture of Trump’s protectionist policies.

US manufacturing cannot keep up with the brute efficiency of its Chinese competitors. The story of a shuttering American factory revived by Chinese investment and an influx of Chinese workers, opening up a Pandora’s Box of cultural clashes, paints a telling, but pessimistic, picture of the current strategic conflict between the two superpowers, from the ground-up.

Image via Netflix.

Despite the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens found ways to watch the documentary, that was made by Ohio filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert. Temporary links to streaming and subtitle services litter the Chinese Internet, making any accurate count of total mainland viewership nigh-impossible. However, one indication of the film’s popularity among mainlanders was the 259,000 views for a trailer posted on Bilibili.

One likely reason for netizens’ interest is that it neatly plays into Chinese state media rhetoric on the US-China trade war.

The inevitability of China’s rise up the global supply chain (and a corresponding decline on the US side) is a recurring theme in opinion pieces penned by the likes of Xinhua and Global Times, but also an increasingly louder cacophony of bloggers.

 

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing.”

 

One Chinese company (Wind资讯) posted on Weibo that “what Obama means in this film, in a very oblique way, is that anti-globalization will produce a lose-lose scenario.”

The official Weibo account of Zhisland, a Chinese networking platform for entrepreneurs around the world (@正和岛标准) posted a review of the Netflix film titled: “Behind the Popularity of American Factory: Time Might Not Be on America’s Side” (“《美国工厂》走红背后:时间,或许真的不在美国那边了“).

It warns the audience right off the bat to “not assume that this film will promote cooperation between China and the United States. In contrast, it will surely stir up mixed feelings among both audiences.”

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing,” Zhisland writes. The article argues that China will win out due to its lower labor costs, lack of trade unions, and more disciplined managerial styles. “It’s an uneven playing field,” the author continues: “Time may not be on America’s side.”

Toward the end, the author claims: “We are about to enter a new era in which China will gradually become the most dominant player in the global marketplace.”

The fact that many on Weibo shared these kinds of pieces as a reaction to the documentary suggests there is confirmation bias at work here. As is common on Weibo and other social media, comments on the pieces like the above simply rattle unsubstantiated claims, frequently descending into ad hominems.

Another Weibo user (@用户Mr.立早) adds comments when sharing the above article: “The American workers repeat Trump’s mantra, but won’t act on it. They’ve been idling for almost a century. They’re hopeless.”

 

“American Factory tells you: separate the US economy from China, and the US will go bankrupt.”

 

Chinese state media also chimed in on how American Factory proved their most important talking points on the ongoing US-China trade conflict.

Xinmin Evening News, an official newspaper run by the Communist Party’s Shanghai Committee, published an article by Wu Jian called “American Factory Tells You: Separate the US Economy from China, and the US Will Go Bankrupt” (“《美国工厂》告诉你:将美国经济从中国分离,美国会破产“).

In this piece, Jian claims that “in the age of globalization, ties between China and the US cannot be cut. Using high tariffs to force U. S. manufacturing return to the States… is simply not realistic. Separate the US economy from China, and the U.S. will go bankrupt.”

The article was also shared widely on Weibo. Thepaper.cn, an online news site affiliated with Shanghai United Media Group, published a review titled “American Factory: The Things that Are Spelled Out and the Things that are Implied” (“《美国工厂》:那些说出来的,和没有说的“).

The author, Xu Le, writes: “What struck me most about the film was the look on the faces of the American workers. All of them … had the same burnt-out expression… Their faces reminded me of photos of people in the late Qing Dynasty. That dull expression reflects a civilization in decline.”

“We’re a family at Fuyao” American workers listen to a rosy speech from their new bosses.

In the film, When American foremen visit a factory run by glass manufacturer Fuyao in China, they are alarmed to see Chinese workers picking up glass shards without safety glasses or cut-resistant gloves.

A Chinese worker picks up glass shards with minimal safety equipment, shocking his American co-workers.

Xu comments: “Why is it that Chinese workers are able to put up with even more drudgery while being paid far less than their American counterparts? This is something we Chinese are very familiar with.”

 

“Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

 

Qin Hui, professor of history at Tsinghua University, once argued that China’s economic growth isn’t because of economic liberalism or government oversight, but because of China’s refusal to guarantee certain basic human rights.

In Maoist China, the state stripped the underprivileged of all political power in the name of the greater good dictated by socialist dogma. Post-Mao China continues to exploit the underprivileged, but now for monetary gain. He called it China’s “advantage” of “low human rights.”

Despite the nationalism sentiment fanned by American Factory, it has also provoked reflection on China’s advantage of low human rights summarized by Qin Hui.

Weibo user ‘Zhi21’ (@ZHI2i), a recent college graduate, writes on Weibo: “I just finished an internship at a factory. I worked 12 hours a day. More than 11 hours of every shift was spent on my feet without stopping, just to keep up with the assembly line. It didn’t make sense to me. After watching American Factory, I feel like American workers are lucky to only work 8 hours a day. That’s why the production costs are higher in the States. They pay too much attention to whether or not workers are comfortable.”

Another Weibo blogger (@GhostSaDNesS) notes that “in American Factory, Fuyao employees believe that to work is to live. They defend the interests of capitalists while they are actively exploited. Unions in the West chose human rights, Chinese capitalists chose profit, and Chinese workers have no choice at all.”

Some of these posts were apparently censored; threads that displayed as having over 200 comments only showed 12, and users complained that their posts were being deleted or made invisible to other users by Weibo censors. “They didn’t give any explanation,” one blogger wrote: ” I only expressed that I felt sorry for the people at the bottom. I didn’t question the system. I didn’t ask to change society.”

Views like that of @Crimmy_Excelsior (“I was confused. Which country is the capitalist one and which country is the socialist one?“) are apparently sensitive enough to be taken offline – they touch upon the tension between the CCP’s espousal of Marxist-Leninism and the plight faced by hundreds of millions of Chinese that have their working conditions driven down by capitalist markets.

Many users don’t buy into nationalist interpretations of the film, and argue that economic gain achieved at the expense of human rights is shameful. @陈生大王 raises a poignant question: “This is a glorious time for China, but I hope this film inspires you to think about who you really are as an individual. Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

“The cost of the glory” is derived from a quip popular on China’s internet. The Chinese government often urges its citizens to rally together, using the rhetoric, “We must win this trade war at all cost.” Some netizens then twisted the phrase, saying, “We must win this trade war at all cost, and we later find out that we are the cost.”

 

“China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.”

 

Even among those in favor of China’s controversial work ethics, there have been concerns over the status quo. Earlier this year, engineers in the tech industry publicly aired their grievances about their “996” lifestyle. The term refers to a high-pressure work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is the kind of life workers in Fuyao are living, with no hope of improvement – they are that the company would find a replacement in no time, making any form of complaining moot.

Recent events in mainland China only increase the credibility of this representation. Factory workers at Jasic, a maker of welding machinery in Shenzhen, attempted to start a union last year. All those involved were fired. A number of college students and activists who actively supported the workers were detained and persecuted.

According to the “China Labor Movement Report (2015-2017)” by China Labor Bulletin (a NGO based in Hong Kong that promotes and defends workers’ rights in the People’s Republic of China) “intensification of social conflicts, including labor-capital conflicts, has crossed a tipping point, and directly threatens the legitimacy of the regime.”

More conspicuously, there are netizens that don’t buy the narrative that Chinese workers are innately “tougher” than their American counterparts. As user @胡尕峰 observes: “(In the film), a new Chinese CEO explains to his fellow Chinese that Americans have been encouraged too much growing up, and can’t take criticism. Chinese born after 2000 have been raised the same way! In my circle of friends, some mothers nearly faint when their babies are finally able to poop. Is China going to end up the same as America?”

American Factory’s objective portrayal of cultural shocks between American and Chinese workforces clearly generated thoughtful reflections and incisive criticism from a sizeable number of netizens, while also being another reason for Chinese state media to highlight the rise of China in the global market.

The chairman of Fuyao Group, Cao Dewang, made headlines this week with the quote: “China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.” “We indeed worked hard for it,” some commenters agreed: “That’s definitely true.”

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Edited by Eduardo Baptista

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