This is the first story in a series exploring how China’s decision to end the one-child policy has impacted Chinese society over the past five years. The policy change, which allowed every family to have two children, was announced on Oct. 29, 2015.
SHANGHAI — When Liu Ziting found out she was pregnant with a second child in January, she didn’t take long to decide what to do. Within minutes, she and her husband agreed to schedule an abortion as soon as possible.
Liu recalls feeling some guilt as she lay on the operating table, and the atheist even found herself praying that the child would find a loving parent in its next life. But she doesn’t regret her decision, she says. Having another baby was just unthinkable.
“We exhausted almost all our money and energy on our first child,” Liu, who requested to use a pseudonym for privacy reasons, tells Sixth Tone. “How could we afford to have a second one?”
Many Chinese parents share Liu’s attitude. Across the country, families are deciding against having more children, fearing the impact doing so would have on their finances and lifestyles.
It’s a trend that’s causing an enormous headache for China’s leaders. Five years ago, the government announced it would end the one-child policy and allow every family to have two children — a move designed to address the country’s aging population. Yet the anticipated baby boom has failed to materialize.
After an initial spike in 2016, China’s birth rate fell in each of the following three years, confounding the expectations of both officials and academics. In 2019, the country recorded only 14.65 million births, while the birth rate fell to under 10.5 per 1,000 — the lowest level since 1952.
Some experts believe the decline could push China into a “low-fertility trap” — an economic chain reaction wherein a growing elderly population acts as a drag on growth and sends care costs spiraling. They fear the process may already be underway.
“According to our latest research, we believe China has already fallen into the low-fertility trap,” says Wang Guangzhou, a researcher at the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “A long-term low birth rate will cause rapid negative population growth, leading to huge challenges to the social and economic system.”
Chinese authorities have introduced a raft of measures to boost the birth rate, from mandatory “cool-off periods” for divorcing couples, to further relaxing family-planning rules. Some Communist party groups have even begun organizing dating events to help young singles settle down and pushing cadres to set a good example by having a second baby.
The measures, however, appear to have had little effect. For Wang, a rising number of single people and divorces are inevitable as China develops and modernizes. And the country’s population of child-bearing age citizens is already falling, according to officials.
Couples living in major cities, meanwhile, have their own reasons for not wanting more children. For many, the problems that come with raising a kid — the financial burden, the lack of child care services, and the fierce competition for school places — are simply too great.
A mother taks her children to a park in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 10, 2020. Liu Jianhua/People Visual
Stella, 29, has been married to her husband for over five years, but the couple has no plans to start a family any time soon. Their friends in Shanghai consider them brave and cool for embracing a DINK — double income, no kids — lifestyle, but Stella says the reality is far less glamorous.
“We’re a fake DINK family,” Stella, who also requested anonymity for privacy reasons, tells Sixth Tone. “It’s not that we’re unwilling to have a child, it’s that we don’t dare to have one.”
The night before they got married in 2015, Stella and her husband agreed not to start a family until they were fully settled down. For the past five years, they’ve been gradually working toward that goal.
After graduating from university, the couple both fought to stay in Shanghai, rather than move back to their native Fujian province on China’s southern coast. They found jobs, landed promotions, and eventually acquired permanent resident status in the city. They also bought a car and secured a mortgage for their 60-square-meter apartment.
Yet the couple still doesn’t feel ready. Stella rattles off a series of issues the couple needs to resolve before having a baby, from buying a larger apartment to deciding whether the couple’s parents would be willing to move to Shanghai to help with child care. Stella also worries that getting pregnant would lead to her being overlooked for future promotions at work.
“We talked again about whether we could plan to have a baby last year, and the answer was no,” Stella says. “The reality is we’re still not financially prepared.”
A mother teaches her daughter how to observe plants at home in Beijing, March 17, 2019. Mai Tian/People Visual
In major cities like Shanghai, the costs associated with raising a child can be staggering. In a 2017 survey by consultancy TF Securities, parents in Beijing estimated the costs were at least 78,000 yuan ($11,500) — equivalent to over a year’s income for an average household in the city. Factoring in extras such as child care costs and and premiums for properties in good school districts, the total could be over 2.5 million yuan, the report found.
“Especially in large cities, young parents with higher education backgrounds will perceive more opportunity costs to raising a child,” Wang, the researcher, tells Sixth Tone. “It’s inevitable for them to choose to have fewer kids or even no kids.”
Local governments are trying to make life easier for new parents. In April, the northern Shanxi province issued a document encouraging employers to provide a 200 yuan monthly child care subsidy to parents with kids under 3 years old. A month later, Beijing raised the payments new mothers can receive through maternity insurance policies.
But for the average couple, the new policies — while well-intentioned — are far from enough. In China’s cities, there’s growing evidence that larger families are becoming the preserve of a wealthy elite. In Shanghai, women who are aged 30-39 and have permanent resident status, a bachelor’s degree, and an above-average household income are statistically more likely to have a second child, a survey by the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences published last year found.
“Now, in Shanghai, maybe the ultimate proof that you’re from a rich family is having a second kid,” says Liu.
But many middle-class couples are simply not interested in having a second baby. Though Yoyo Zhao meets all the criteria outlined in the Shanghai survey, she shudders at the thought of raising another kid.
“Some people around me say that having two children brings double happiness, but I’ll never envy their lives,” the 36-year-old says. “I sincerely believe their pains have doubled, too.”
Since having her son in 2012, Zhao’s life — and her marriage — has totally changed. When Sixth Tone meets her in September, it happens to be her husband’s birthday. In the past, the couple would have celebrated by going for a fancy meal, but not anymore.
“My son has to attend a competition at his extracurricular class tomorrow,” Zhao sighs. “I have to go home early to help him get ready.”
Though Zhao and her husband spent years preparing to start a family, they were still taken aback by how tough it proved to be.
During her long pregnancy, Zhao had to carefully control her weight, fearing she might contract gestational diabetes after suffering several months of morning sickness. She also had to undergo an emergency C-section, after a difficult labor.
“The risks and costs women endure to give birth were largely underestimated in the past,” Zhao says.
A pregnant woman checks her medical records at a hospital in Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, June 4, 2020. Chen Yang/People Visual
Once her son reached preschool age, Zhao found herself spending enormous sums on early education classes — which many Chinese parents consider essential to ensure children don’t fall behind in the country’s ultra-competitive school system — and much less on pampering herself. “In handbag terms, I lost a Hermès Birkin bag every year,” she says, half-jokingly.
Instead, Zhao started carrying a huge “mommy bag” stuffed with baby towels and diapers. She stopped wearing makeup (in case her son licked it) and jewelry (as it might scratch him). And with most of her spare time spent ferrying her child to painting, English, and other extra classes, there was little point dressing up anyway.
For Zhao, eight years of this has been more than enough. “I don’t have more energy to take care of a second child,” she says. “I don’t want to repeat all the pains I have suffered.”
Though some worry that only children can be lonely, Zhao dismisses this concern. Like most parents of her generation, both Zhao and her husband grew up as single children in the 1980s, during the early days of the one-child policy.
“I never felt lonely during my childhood,” says Zhao. “Instead of giving him a sibling, I hope he can learn how to make friends and start his own family.”
Liu, who also grew up as an only child, echoes this sentiment. Nine months after her abortion, she says she feels nothing but relief about her decision — especially given that Shanghai went into lockdown just a few days after her procedure.
Though Shanghai never experienced a large-scale coronavirus outbreak, city residents were encouraged to stay at home for weeks, while companies adopted remote working and schools shut their doors. For Liu, trying to work from home while entertaining her young son — who had a habit of suddenly springing up during Liu’s video calls with her boss — was exhausting.
“We were stuck at home with an energetic 4-year-old for 24 hours a day — it was almost like a horror movie,” says Liu. “Imagine how much more horrible it would’ve been with two children.”
But Liu insists her decision benefits her son, too. Many of his classmates are second children, as he was born in 2016 — the year after China introduced the two-child policy. The boy, however, has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want a younger sibling, Liu says.
“I think as parents, we should respect him, no matter how young he is,” says Liu. “I also want to give him all the love we can. He’s always the chosen one, and he doesn’t have to share my love with anyone else.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Moment/People Visual)