Jack Ma, the billionaire founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, was back in the news this week — this time for exhorting his employees to start getting just as busy at home as they already are in the workplace.
On May 10, in his role as a public witness to the group wedding of over 200 Alibaba employees, Ma made light of the Chinese tech sector’s notorious and unpopular ‘996’ work schedule, in which companies require or expect employees to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. “We emphasize the spirit of 996 at work; in life, we want 669,” Ma joked. “What’s 669? Six times in six days, the key being endurance,” he explained, making a pun on the Chinese word for “nine,” which is a homophone of “endurance.”
It’s not unusual for witnesses at Chinese weddings to haze the newlyweds with dirty jokes or games, even if public figures like Ma should know better. But for all the controversy Ma’s vulgarity aroused on Chinese social media, far more disturbing is what his speech revealed about his retrograde sexual politics. “Marriage is not about accumulating wealth, about buying a house, or about buying a car, but about having children together,” he said. At a time when Chinese women are already bristling at the personal, physical, and emotional costs of childbearing, it should come as no surprise that Ma’s comments struck a nerve. Instead of self-righteously preaching to his overworked employees about the virtues of large families, perhaps his time would be better spent trying to understand their reservations.
Ma’s insistence that, “While there are many paths to marriage, there is one that everyone must take, that is, having children,” wasn’t made in a vacuum. Births have declined precipitously in China in recent years — dropping from roughly 24 million newborns in 1989 to about 15 million last year — and women are under increasing pressure to reverse a trend that could have devastating economic and social consequences for China’s future.
When the expected baby boom didn’t materialize after China implemented the two-child policy in 2016, public figures and officials began floating a wide range of proposals to avert the coming demographic crunch — from offering tax breaks to families with two children to scrapping birth controls altogether. Late last year, the international edition of party-run People’s Daily Online created controversy when it ran an op-ed calling childbirth “both a family matter and a national matter.”
Above all else, however, childbirth is a female matter. The ability to give birth belongs to women alone, meaning the brunt of current efforts to reverse dropping birth rates will fall on their shoulders. There is a real risk that, if carried too far, the campaign to raise the birth rate will end up running roughshod over women’s reproductive freedoms.
Although both men and women take part in child rearing, the exercise and realization of reproductive rights ultimately asks more from women than from men. In this, as in all decisions, a woman’s rights to personal freedom, to freedom from physical domination, and to health should be respected, and their rights to contraception and reproductive autonomy guaranteed. But in practice, patriarchal societies — and their avatars, whether they be business leaders or op-ed writers — face few barriers for exerting pressure on women who do not want to have children.
Considered in context, Ma’s remarks represent the screws tightening one more time on women’s reproductive freedoms. But while he was busy giving unsolicited advice, Chinese women were having a rare open discussion about the physical and psychological price of childbirth — one that women must often bear alone.
On May 2, a user on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, made a short post about postpartum conditions. Meant to give readers an idea of what to expect after they were done expecting, the post sparked a wide-ranging discussion about long-ignored issues like urinary incontinence, uterine prolapse, and postpartum depression — and the general lack of societal awareness of what new mothers experience. In less than two weeks, the post had been viewed more than 20 million times and attracted tens of thousands of replies.
Ten days later, on Mother’s Day, Chen Jiahua — a member of the well-known Taiwanese band S.H.E. who also goes by “Ella” — shared her motherhood experiences in a viral Facebook post that was later reposted to Weibo. Disclosing that childbirth had caused both her uterus and bladder to prolapse, she admitted that, prior to a recent surgery, everything from running to sneezing could cause urinary incontinence. “Mothers are not superhuman,” she concluded. “If you have any difficulties or frustrations during the process, please ask for help.”
Based on the responses and discussions triggered by these two posts, it’s clear that many Chinese netizens — men and women alike — have little to no awareness of common postpartum conditions. Some mothers expressed surprise upon reading that the urinary incontinence they had experienced was a consequence of childbirth. Others cautioned that complaining to family members only marks a woman as overly fussy and delicate. In typical fashion, men also weighed in, abusing those discussing the problem for “selling panic and anxiety.”
One user shared the results of a recent conversation about the risk of postpartum depression with her parents. “My mom still believes postpartum depression is just (women) making up problems where there are none, and my dad got all heated, saying it was invented out of boredom,” she wrote. “I never thought my parents were those kinds of people, but in that moment, I decided I’d die before having kids.”
Traditionally, Chinese, both male and female, treated childbirth as the natural and inevitable responsibility of all women. A woman’s main value lay in her fertility — especially her ability to produce sons. Any pain associated with childbirth was simply taken for granted. This is perhaps one reason why so-called painless labor — often achieved by administering an epidural during childbirth — remains very rare in China, where it is used in less than 10% of births. This is partly due to a shortage of trained anesthesiologists, but there is also an ingrained notion that pain is a part of childbirth, and any attempt to reduce it diminishes the process. Mothers have long been associated with sacrifice, dedication, and selflessness, and any woman who couldn’t bear pain or discomfort simply wasn’t seen as fit to be a mother.
In addition, traditional taboos have long made it hard for women to have open and frank discussions about sex and their bodies. Sex and reproductive organs, gynecological diseases, urine, and excrement all are off-limits topics, and some women even feel uncomfortable raising them with their doctors.
The choice to have children should belong to women themselves, and they should have the right to do so in whatever manner they wish, painless or otherwise. If governments, businesses, and public figures really want to boost the birth rate, they would do better to respect women’s choices, listen to what they have to say, and provide a positive environment in which to give birth and raise a family. And they should keep their mouths shut.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Jack Ma officiates a group wedding of Alibaba employees in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, May 10, 2019. IC)