Beijing on Friday, January 17, reported its lowest birth rate since the founding of Communist China over seven decades ago, a sign that the posters, public information campaigns and official exhortations to have more children appear to have had almost no discernible effect.
China’s government has been trying to manage a public U-turn on one of its biggest, longest running and most powerful policy and propaganda campaigns for several years now, urging a generation of only-children – born under its one-child policy – that they should have more babies themselves.
However, there has been little public recognition of incentives for young people, particularly women, to have small families or none at all.
The bureaucrats who laid out the one-child policy didn’t seem to have really grappled with the possibility that demographic changes might not be easily reversible, said Mei Fong, author of One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment.
“The whole policy was drafted by missile scientists. It was based around mechanical systems, where you set a target then adjust accordingly. Women’s bodies were treated like engines, you set inputs and expect to get a certain output,” she said.
“The architect of the whole (one-child) project acknowledged many years ago that an ageing population could eventually lead to problems, but just said ‘that can be adjusted’, as if women’s bodies can just be treated like levers, moved up and down,” said the author.
Single daughters have grown up in a system that taught whole families that limiting family size was a path to happiness, prosperity and social mobility.
Now they work in an environment where women are penalised for their gender even before their first day on the job. Pregnancy and motherhood bring another level of discrimination for many.
That combination of deeply sexist constraints and years of propaganda have proven powerfully effective as contraceptives for many women.
A government that is very good at coercion – forcing abortions or heavy fines on those who broke the laws – struggles with inducements, or indeed with stepping away from the idea of social engineering.
Its push for a higher birthrate is within highly constricted boundaries. The government wants more babies, but only the ones that it considers the right kind of babies, born into a traditional marriage of a man and a woman.
Single mothers face fines or obstacles to accessing social services for their children. One woman has been suing just for the right to freeze her eggs. With same-sex marriage not legal, gay and lesbian couples struggle to become parents.
In the name of “ethnic equality”, the government also recently reduced the number of children ethnic minority couples are allowed, which used to be higher than for the majority Han.
“Urban educated working women are the ones who are going to suffer the most, they are the ones seen as the ideal birth vehicles for China’s future, the handmaidens,” said Fong. “They face all kinds of pressure from families, from society, to reproduce.” (Source: The Guardian)