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    The Myth of the Urban Singleton

    The only-child policy only accelerated a push toward gender equality that was already in motion in urban areas.

    In reference to China’s single-child generation, author Chen Danyan wrote in 1997: “The lonely little hands are shaking the old kingdom. A society comprised of singletons profoundly challenges the old country long dominated by patriarchal conventions.”

    And although I first read this as a teenager, it remained fresh in my memory. I remember those words giving my teenage self the impression that I was part of a generation about to bring an unprecedented new age to an age-old country.

    A formal education and state-initiated propaganda coupled with my personal experience always made me a proponent of China’s single-child policy for what I believed it had brought to women in urban centers. As the only child in my home — a “singleton” — I have always enjoyed the full attention of my parents — not only financially, but also their time, attention, and affection.

    My parents always told me that I could achieve anything a boy could. And as I grew up I began to realize that benefits derived from being a singleton daughter included not only the material resources, but also high expectations from my parents who motivated me to pursue not only happiness, but personal achievement and equal opportunity. Although they never used the term “gender equality,” this idea unconsciously accompanied my childhood.

    Gender equality is part of a greater push in modern China toward individualism, independence, personal freedoms, and equal rights, which are increasingly upheld as inalienable rights and important contributors to a well-functioning society. The outcome of increased women’s rights seems to offer reason enough to appraise the single-child policy, especially in urban areas where these changes have been most profound.

    I won’t attempt to deny the suffering that the policy has caused. Contrasted against the rosy picture of gender equality in urban areas is the havoc wreaked in the name of the single-child regulations in the countryside, including female infanticide, abandonment and neglect of daughters, selective abortion, and mandatory contraception.

    However, I believe gender equality in urban areas is actually more the natural result of modernization in China’s cities, and not necessarily a simple byproduct of the one-child policy, although the policy was also a contributing factor.

    When we raise questions about the consequences of the policy on women’s status and social transformations, we assume that we can view the policy as exogenous and separable from the country’s social system in the historical period it operated under. But all the policy did, at most, was to accelerate changes that were already happening in urban society. One reason the policy was so smoothly implemented in the cities was because of the declining preference of sons over daughters that had been gaining momentum since the early 20th century.

    By the time of the policy’s inception in the late 1970s, China’s coastal cities had already undergone decades of modernization since the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, despite the interruption of recurrent wars and revolutions. This modernization had gradually balanced out the gender preference for children, which had previously been skewed toward boys. Progressive population reforms in the post-Cultural Revolution period further drove this push to gender equality in the cities.

    The urban economic pattern that has emerged since Deng Xiaoping’s opening-up reforms in the 1980s has also prompted parents to believe their daughters could be as worthy of investment as sons. Unlike the rural economy, the modern urban economy in the last decades has experienced a push away from the heavy industry sector and a growth in the business and service industries.

    The rise of the modern-day service industry unfettered many urban residents from the laborious agricultural work that favored men. Urban women could increasingly find well-paid jobs largely absent in the rural market. At the social level, this greatly reduced the relative privilege men had enjoyed under the labor economy. At the domestic level, the ability of singleton daughters to financially support their parents in old age — as men had traditionally done — gave many urban parents confidence in daughters as a future investment.

    From a social-exchange view, it was the parental confidence in their child’s ability to support them in old age that began motivating them to make a real investment in their daughters. Consequently, it was not simply the single-child policy that led to formation of an elite women class, but also a parents’ belief in the attainability of elite status by their daughters.

    When viewed in this way, China’s one-child policy only helped carry on a tradition that was already in full motion in urban areas. The journey toward gender equality is a long one, and while the initiation of the single-child policy may have been an accelerator, its implementation per se was not necessary for the liberalization of women in cities.

    (Header image: Members of ‘Lean In Shanghai,’ a group that promotes women empowerment, listen to a speech during an annual event in Shanghai, Dec. 19, 2015. Gao Zheng/Sixth Tone)