When Ma Li heard the news that China was planning to introduce a three-child policy in May, she had a decision to make.
At 43 years old, the mother of two knew time was running out if she wanted to have another baby. And she was in a great position to do so: She earned a decent income as a teacher, her husband had a secure university job, and her two kids were no longer infants.
But in the end, Ma didn’t have to think for long.
“Absolutely not,” she told Sixth Tone when asked whether she intended to take advantage of the relaxed family-planning rules. “No one wants to have a third child, as far as I know.”
Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about the country’s rapidly aging population, which threatens to mire the economy in a “low-fertility trap” of stagnant growth and spiraling social care costs.
In May, the government abruptly announced it would end the two-child policy — introduced just over five years ago — and allow couples to have three children. Since then, officials have introduced a slew of reforms to encourage families to have more kids, including tax incentives, improved access to kindergartens, and scrapping fines for parents who violate government birth limits.
But the government will have a hard time convincing ordinary parents like Ma to have three kids. Many cities have conducted surveys since the three-child policy was announced to gauge the public’s reaction to the reforms — and the results have dismayed local officials.
In Jinhua, a city in east China’s Zhejiang province, more than nine out of 10 couples said they had no intention of having a third child. In Jinan, the capital of eastern Shandong province, officials found that educated, high-income couples were even less likely to want another kid.
In the past, the government would have expected parents in Ma’s hometown of Wenzhou — a prosperous city on China’s eastern coast — to embrace the three-child policy immediately.
A woman takes her children to visit her parents during the Spring Festival, Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, February 1985. Xiao Yunji/FOTOE/People Visual
Wenzhou has long been known for large, tight-knit families, with local parents gaining a reputation for frequently breaking China’s family planning laws during the one-child era. The city has had the highest birth rate in Zhejiang province for 20 years running.
When China switched to a two-child policy in late 2015, it produced instant results in Wenzhou. Around half the city’s newborn babies over the past five years have been second children — a far higher rate than the national average.
“Wenzhou women love families and children,” said Ma, whose family spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym for privacy reasons. “They work hard for a better life.”
Yet even here, the three-child policy has been greeted with a shrug. Local authorities are resorting to subtle methods to try and generate enthusiasm. This summer, some seventh-grade students in the city were ordered to write an essay. The subject: “Why my parents should give me another brother or sister.”
Ma’s family history reflects how local attitudes have shifted over the years. In the early ’80s, Ma’s father — Ma Keluo — broke China’s family-planning laws to have three daughters, leading his employer to punish him with a salary cut. Now, Ma Li and her sisters all have children of their own — but none of them want a third baby.
Chinese family photos from the 1950s and ‘60s, from Jin Yongquan’s 2020 book “Unnamed Photos.” Large families were common in China during this period. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
For grandfather Ma Keluo, the trend toward having fewer children will be difficult to reverse. In Chinese policy circles, debates about the nation’s declining birth rate have tended to focus on economics — especially the sky-high cost of raising a child in China’s major cities. But there are also deeper, longer-term issues behind the shift, the 71-year-old suggested.
“Attitudes toward giving birth have fundamentally changed over the past few decades,” he said. “In the old days, people tended to have many children — for one thing, the survival rate for newborns wasn’t high due to diseases. Also, they wouldn’t stop giving birth until they had a son, or enough sons.”
When Ma Keluo was growing up in the countryside outside central Wenzhou, most people lived on small family farms and spent their days doing hard physical labor.
“You can imagine why it was important to have sons — they could do the labor-intensive jobs much more easily,” he said.
It was the determination to have a son that drove Ma Keluo to flout the country’s one-child policy. He was one of the few people in his village that managed to escape life on the farm, excelling at school and landing a teaching job. But he still felt a strong cultural pressure to produce a male heir.
“There was still this deep-rooted idea in my hometown — it’s shameful if you don’t have a son,” he recalled. “It was common to be asked, ‘how many sons do you have?’ I usually answered, ‘I have 1.5 — a daughter equals 0.5 sons.’”
A man helps transport a large family photo in Beijing, 2012. Zhang Jusheng/People Visual
When the one-child policy came into force in 1979, Ma Keluo had only one daughter — Ma Li. But local officials initially gave families some leeway, and Ma didn’t get in trouble when his second daughter was born in 1981. At the time, some couples had as many as five kids, he recalled.
“They allowed local families to have two children as long as there was a four-year gap between them,” said Ma Keluo. “People’s willingness to have more children was so high — some traveled to the mountains to deliver children, while others moved to other areas just to have kids.”
Still desperate for a son, Ma Keluo decided to take a risk and have a third child. But after his third daughter, Ma Mei, was born in 1984, the father had to give up his dream. His school had already reduced his salary for violating the national birth limit, and he expected the punishment would be even more severe the next time.
“I couldn’t risk it anymore — I could easily lose my job,” said Ma Keluo. “When I was young, I wished I could have had a son … But life is harsh, and reality teaches you to face the music.”
Today, however, the retiree no longer feels it necessary to have a large family. After China abolished the one-child policy, his two eldest daughters both decided to have another baby. But when his third child, Ma Mei, considered doing the same, Ma Keluo tried to talk her out of the idea.
“I’ve seen what the other two families went through — they led stressful lives, and there’s been huge pressure,” he said. “I believe young people value their quality of life. Some never even get married. I’m quite open-minded. My children are free to choose how many children they should have. I simply hope they lead a happy life.”
For the three daughters, it has been difficult to decide whether to have more children. Ma Li, the eldest, says her main motivation for having a second was to make life easier for her son in the future.
“I felt only children were too lonely — they can’t adapt to competition easily — so having a sibling might benefit my son,” she said. “We’re growing older, and the only child would have to deal with huge pressure taking care of his elder relatives.
Ma Keluo, however, said many of his grandson’s friends wanted to remain only children. Though only fifth-graders at the time, they were already thinking about their inheritance.
“Some of his classmates were strongly against having a sibling — their concern was that they’d lose half of the family assets,” said Ma Keluo. “My grandson wasn’t drastically against it, but he definitely wasn’t excited. As the only child, he’d enjoyed all his parents’ love. He felt disappointed his parents wanted another child.”
Customers inspect a showroom designed for families with three children at an IKEA store in Shanghai, Aug. 12, 2021. Chen Yuyu/People Visual
Once she had given her son a sibling, Ma Li decided her family was large enough. The financial cost of having a third child was simply too high, she said.
“Raising more children means more expenditure, which forces you to work harder to make more money,” said Ma Li. “But that requires you to spend more time working, and this leaves you less time to spend with your children.”
When her second child — a daughter — was born, Ma Li hired a nanny to take care of her, as both she and her husband work full-time. However, the nanny’s wages are 6,500 yuan ($1,000) per month — a large sum in a city where the average per capita disposable income is just 54,000 yuan per year.
Then, there’s the eye-watering cost of the children’s after-school tutoring, which Ma Li — like many Chinese parents — considers essential to ensure they have the chance to get into a good college.
“If you send your child to learn math, English, singing, and dancing, it could easily cost you 100,000 yuan a year,” she said. “If anyone’s choosing to go for it (and have a third child), they must be very rich — not just the average kind of rich, but super-rich.”
Yao Yinmei, a demography expert at Zhejiang University, told Sixth Tone the price of extracurricular activities is a major factor deterring Chinese couples from having more children.
“That’s why the central government is now focusing on supportive measures to accompany the three-child policy,” she said. “They’re as important as the policy itself.”
A couple looks after their two children, in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, Dec. 19, 2017. Zhao Yong/People Visual
In late July, the government took draconian steps to tame China’s vast tutoring market, banning many forms of extracurricular classes and preventing companies in the industry from raising capital. The reforms are designed to reduce the cost of raising children and cool China’s educational rat race.
Ma Li, however, said she doubted the policy would work as intended — a view echoed by many Chinese parents. Families will still find ways to ensure their kids receive extra tuition, she suggested.
“Families really prioritize providing their children with a quality education,” said Ma Li. “Canceling academic tutoring classes can’t solve the issue for good.”
Ma Li’s younger sister, Ma Mei, only has one child — a 6-year-old daughter. Unlike her sibling, the 37-year-old doesn’t consider it a problem that her girl is an only child.
“If I have a second child, it’ll be because I love children,” said Ma Mei. “It has nothing to do with my daughter. I won’t have a child just for her sake.”
A family poses for a family portrait at a photo studio in Beijing, 2017. Hao Yi and Wang Weiwen/Beijing Youth Daily/People Visual
As the youngest of three — and the only one born a crime — Ma Mei didn’t feel lucky to be part of a large family as a child. She still remembers having to hide from the family planning inspectors when she was young.
“Whenever those men with black umbrellas appeared, my neighbors would warn me, and I’d hide,” she said. “It was more like a game for me.”
Ma Mei said she was filled with envy for her primary school classmates who were only children. She often felt she received less attention from her parents because she was the third daughter.
“My classmates were using brand-new stationery while I was using second- or even third-hand pencils and an ugly old pencil case,” she said. “My parents had three kids — they didn’t give each of us close supervision. But some kids like me could be very sensitive.”
As she got older, Ma Mei said she began to appreciate her sisters more. In high school, they’d call each other and share their teenage angst. After they started families, they’d swap advice on parenting and education. And now that their father, Ma Keluo, is beginning to suffer serious health issues, they support each other more than ever.
“Our parents are getting old … But honestly, I don’t feel scared because I have two sisters,” said Ma Mei. “No matter what decisions have to be made, I have them alongside me.”
But the mother stressed that not all families are the same as hers. Her sisters are both highly capable and have successful careers, which makes it easier to handle life’s challenges together, she said.
“What if I had a sister who didn’t have a good job or a decent income?” said Ma Mei. “That would be another story.”
Ma Mei and her husband are still undecided about whether to have a second baby. But they’re absolutely certain they don’t want three kids, she said.
“That would be too much of a burden,” said Ma Mei. “As my sister put it, after she had a second son, she felt like she was working two jobs ... It’s too hard. I still want to live my own life.”
Her father and older sister also return to this point. Ultimately, parents want to be able to give their children everything they need and still have some time and money left for themselves, said Ma Li.
“People who value their quality of life and education think the same way everywhere: They won’t easily consider having a third child,” she said.
Additional reporting: Zhuge Rongrong; editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Local residents take family photos in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, Sept. 20, 2018. IC)