It’s been six months since China announced it would relax birth restrictions and allow families to have up to three children. The broader policy picture is now starting to come into focus.
After the two-child policy was implemented in 2016, China experienced a short-lived baby boom, but the effects soon tapered off. This time, lawmakers have emphasized the need to pair relaxed restrictions with policy support to make having more children appealing and feasible for families. The Ministry of Education has proposed expanding after-school services and activities to help working parents, while provincial authorities have suggested shorter workdays or extra annual leave for parents of young children.
Most of these measures remain on the drawing board, but there is one area where provincial governments are making rapid progress: maternity leave. According to Chinese law, women are legally entitled to a minimum of 98 days of paid maternity leave; most provinces extend this to between 138 and 158 days. Now, some are moving to supplement this total with additional leave for new mothers, and in some cases fathers as well. The eastern province of Zhejiang, for example, now grants mothers 158 days of maternity leave, plus an additional 30 days off for their second and third children.
These measures come as the Chinese government finally reckons with the seriousness of the country’s demographic situation. According to official data from last year’s national census, China’s total population currently stands at just over 1.41 billion. Although that represents a slight increase from 2010, the population growth rate fell by 0.04% over the past decade, the first recorded decline since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. This fall has become more precipitous since 2017.
The census data reflects structural contradictions, such as declines in the working-age population and number of women of childbearing age. In essence, aging has now become a baseline national condition in China.
But the ongoing expansion of maternity leave does little to address the underlying economic and financial obstacles to having children. As a result, it risks further disadvantaging women on the job market while doing little to boost the birth rate.
Whether extending maternity leave will have the desired effect of increasing births depends primarily on who bears the cost of the policies. If the cost falls on for-profit enterprises, extending maternity leave will make hiring women — especially women who have not had children — more expensive compared to hiring male candidates with similar qualifications. This puts pressure on female employees to provide greater value than their male counterparts — no easy feat in a society where the responsibilities of childcare still fall disproportionately on women.
Indeed, the 98 days of maternity leave women already enjoy has long been cited as a disadvantage on the job market. Simply extending this leave without implementing supporting policies and legal protections is likely to further harm women’s job prospects and maybe even put them off having children.
The effects of this discrimination are unevenly felt. In general, women who work in the public sector or at state-owned enterprises and institutions have greater security in terms of employment rights and are better positioned to reap the benefits of pro-natal policies. However, the expansion of these policies could have the unintended side-effect of increasing competition among women for already scarce civil service or public sector jobs.
If the government does not back up its pro-natal policies with real financial and economic support, the costs of these policies will be passed on to the very people they’re supposed to help. Even the possibility of one day taking maternity leave may force women to accept concessions like lower pay or block them from lucrative job opportunities.
These costs will in turn be borne by their families. According to researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, the employment rate for married women fell by 6.6% after giving birth to their first child, and by an additional 9.3% after their second child. Family labor earnings dropped by 5.6% and 7.1%, respectively.
A well-intentioned welfare policy could eventually become a punitive burden, exacerbating women’s fears of gender discrimination without meaningfully reducing the potential costs of childbirth.
Ultimately, once a country’s birth rate begins to fall, boosting it again cannot be accomplished with wishful thinking and unfunded mandates. A promise with no money or backing behind it is barely worth the paper it’s printed on.
Economic factors are the primary drivers of the sharp decline in China’s birth rate in recent years. Economic development increases the opportunity cost of having children and improves women’s social status and personal value. This relieves them from the social and familial pressure of childbirth while simultaneously making the personal choice to have kids more onerous. As India’s Minister of Population, Karan Singh, famously put it in 1974: “Development is the best contraceptive.”
Encouraging women to start families therefore requires economic solutions, including policy fields such as finance, taxation, insurance, employment, and child services. The government needs to introduce broad-based economic and social support policies, such as maternity insurance, public housing, and childcare, capable of alleviating the economic and financial burdens on couples of childbearing age. Anything short of that is simply another empty promise.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A nurse gives a pregnant woman massages at a suite in a hospital, Beijing, March 16, 2016. People Visual)