Take a Hint! How Chinese Officials Are Subtly Promoting Having Children
It would not have been surprising if residents of Wuhan, central Hubei province, did not even notice the change to the landscape of one of their most popular parks. For many years, an unremarkable sculpture had stood on a river bank of the Hankou Jiangtan Park, depicting a family of three: two parents and their child, with a large ring behind.
Then, almost overnight, the number of children tripled.
Guo Xue, the sculptor behind the work, named “Beautiful Future,” told domestic media outlet The Paper that he added the two new children at the request of local officials in late 2023. The reason given was “cultural improvement”: to better reflect China’s current three-child policy.
Since 2021, the Chinese government has permitted couples to have three children, after five years of permitting two children and more than three decades of a one-child policy, which officials say was needed to control population growth and facilitate economic growth.
According to the latest data from the National Bureau of Statistics, China’s birth rate hit a record low in 2023 as its population fell for a second consecutive year.
The government has therefore made encouraging people to have more children a priority. But compared to the straightforward slogans of the one-child policy, officials today are finding it more challenging to encourage people to do something they do not have to do.
The challenge even prompted the China Family Planning Association — formed in 1980 to help implement the one-child policy — to seek the public’s help in formulating new propaganda slogans for the three-child policy in 2021.
Instead, officials are trying out more subtle methods of promoting the policy. Netizens have identified several instances of the authorities alluding to the three-child policy in official content, including a video reposted by state-run China Youth Daily in April 2022 celebrating the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s 73rd anniversary.
In the video’s post-credits scene, a call between a navy personnel and his mother ends with him saying “a third one,” hinting at the arrival of a third aircraft carrier as well as a reference to the newly introduced three-child policy.
He Zeying, a 24-year-old programmer in the eastern tech hub of Hangzhou, has seen subtle signs of the government’s promotion of marriage and having children during the annual Spring Festival Gala in recent years, such as sketches showing parents with two children and numerous grandchildren.
“I feel a kind of invisible pressure, as if having children and getting married has transformed from a family task into a societal one,” said He.
These subliminal methods also existed during the two-child policy era. In early 2021, local media reported that education officials had updated the cover of a “moral education” textbook for third-grade students, depicting a couple and their child, to include a sibling.
It is unclear if a third child will be added to the cover. The textbook publisher did not respond to Sixth Tone’s request for comment.
Speculation about clues of family planning policy directions hidden in official content and materials has been going on for years. For example, in 2019, new official stamps commemorating the year of the pig and showing two adult pigs with three piglets were interpreted as a sign of an imminent loosening of the two-child policy.
“This kind of promotion is meant to demonstrate the government’s stance; it tells people that officials are advocating and encouraging having children,” Yang Xueyan, a professor from the Institute for Population and Development Studies at Xi’an Jiaotong University, told Sixth Tone.
Yang believes such subtle promotion will be more effective than direct calls to have more children. For instance, in a move that attracted widespread ridicule from netizens, local officials in the central city of Xi’an sent text messages to residents during last year’s Qixi Festival, also known as Chinese Valentine’s Day, encouraging them to have more children to “continue the Chinese bloodline and shoulder the responsibility of national rejuvenation.”
“(Subtle promotion) can exert a more gentle and unnoticeable influence on people,” said Yang. However, she warns that the biggest obstacle for people having children is still the high cost of raising them, both emotionally and financially.
While major cities, including Hangzhou and the central city of Zhengzhou, have rolled out financial subsidy programs in the past year for couples who have given birth, they do not address the range of issues dissuading people from having children, such as the work-life imbalance prevalent among young people, according to Yang.
“Mere promotion of a policy without addressing the underlying issues … is not enough to truly influence individual behavior and decision-making.”
For Lü Di, a 27-year-old mother with a 1-year-old son, the new sculpture in Hankou Jiangtan Park gives off a “beautiful family feeling.” However, she has no plans to have another child.
“It’s just too painful,” she said.
There are signs that officials are aware of the challenge they face. In recent years, multiple government departments have rolled out insurance, housing, and education benefits for new parents, while dozens of pilot projects have been launched around the country to try to usher in a “new-era” marriage and childbearing culture.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: The sculpture depicting a family of five in Wuhan, Hubei province, Dec. 31, 2023. VCG)