As restrictions loosen, Chinese think twice about more kids
Economic realities shape new thinking on family size
Couples in China will this year be permitted to have two children if either parent is a single child (picture: AFP Photo/Wang Zhao)
Chen Xiuxia, a mother of three, was desperate to have a boy a few years after China implemented the single child policy in 1980.
A resident of Zhaoqing in the south, she was then living in a village on the outskirts of the city in the country’s most populated province, Guangdong. Like most Chinese women in rural areas she felt under pressure to have a male child to continue the family’s bloodline. But it wasn’t to be: Her first child was a girl.
“A woman felt inferior if she didn’t have a boy in the village,” she says.
In the 1980s, the Communist Party made three revisions to the single child policy including one amendment permitting rural mothers to have a second child if the first was a girl, but only if the children were spaced four years apart.
Chen broke the rules when she got pregnant a year after her first child was born. She would have to pay a fine equal to 20 percent of the annual average income of her district, or worse, face a forced abortion - a common practice in China at the time.
Chen decided to flee her husband’s village and hide in her mother’s house, also near Zhaoqing, had a girl named Fan Haiyi and - like many families - hid her second child away from the authorities to avoid punishment and snide remarks from neighbors.
“Actually, I didn’t mind that my child was a girl. I just couldn’t bear gossip from others,” says Chen.
Chinese mothers in the same situation today are free to have a second child in rural areas if their first is a girl, regardless of the spacing between them. And early this year, the government is rolling out its latest revision to the single-child policy meaning couples can have two children if either parent is an only child.
In densely populated Guangdong, the measure is likely to prove popular: a 2011 survey found that 80 percent of single children are themselves keen to have more than one child.
Meanwhile, the government has claimed success in preventing a population explosion after China was close to reaching a billion people in 1980 – there are officially now 1.35 billion people in China, and almost certainly more when hidden children like Fan are included in the total. But it would have been many more without restrictions.
“Implementation of the single-child policy over the last 30 years successfully reduced the population by nearly 400 million,” Mao Qunan, a National Population and Family Planning Commission spokesman, said in November as the government announced its latest policy change.
The UN estimates China’s population will peak at 1.4 million around the year 2030 before falling to 940 million by 2100, less than the number of Chinese in 1980 when the single-child policy was put into effect. But leveling out China’s ticking demographic time bomb is likely to prove more difficult.
The population has aged so much that a 2010 census found the number of people under 15 years old fell 6.3 percent compared to the previous census in 2001, and over a quarter of the population will be 65 or older by 2020.
More than 30 years of restrictions on family size – alongside sweeping reforms which have seen China elevated to the world's second largest economy – have also changed Chinese thinking.
After hiding her second child Fan away from the world, Chen eventually had a third child, a boy.
“My world became bright again,” she says. “I could hold up my head in the neighborhood.”
Whereas emphasis in the past was always on a male heir – a symptom of China’s strictly paternalistic society – the recent breakdown and distortion of this centuries-old tradition combined with capitalist-style reforms over the same period has encouraged a greater emphasis on quality of life.
Luo Cuiyin, a factory worker in Zhaoqing, is about to have her second child.
“I want my son to own a company,” she says.
Although many Chinese say they are happy to be more free in making their own decisions on how many children they have, mothers like Chen, who only gave her surname, are content to stick with just one: “I want more time to enjoy my life,” she says.
And perhaps more space: Guangdong has become China’s most populous province in recent years. Migrants have flooded in to cities like Dongguan where firms including Apple subcontract production of cell phones and garment factories churn out global brands on machines operated by Chinese from every corner of the country.
Dongguan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen – all within a drive of less than two hours – have a combined urban population over 30 million people, more than the total number in Malaysia or Saudi Arabia.
Shenzhen, the gateway to Hong Kong, has grown from just thousands in 1979 when it was designated a special economic zone to over 10 million people today. Zhaoqing, just west of Guangzhou, is considered tiny by comparison with just over half a million residents. In few other places on Earth is human overcrowding as apparent as in Guangdong.
One of China’s richest provinces, the cost of raising a child here has risen to as much as 50,000 yuan ($8,220) each year “according to current price levels,' Qu Jiangbo, director of the Guangzhou Academy of Social Science for Quantitative Economics, told news site Soufun.com last year.
Whereas Chinese families saw an extra child as an additional worker in the past, long before the single-child policy was implemented, nowadays they are considered a financial burden by many.
“I’ll consider my economic situation before having a second child,” says Fan, Chen’s second daughter.
When Chen first had children in the 1980s she says she just hoped they would grow up healthy and happy. Fan, who says she plans to marry within two years, expects more for her son or daughter when they are born into today's China.
“I hope my child can receive a better education, be talented and accomplished,” she says.
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