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  • Blonde in Beijing

Do Chinese Women Want More than One Baby? The “Two Child Policy,” Part 1

Once a week, I meet up with a friend for a language exchange: I practice English with her and she practices Chinese with me. We meet at a branch of “Sculpting in Time,” a café with wood floors and comfy sofas that is famous for taking in stray cats. Normally, we are very serious in our language exchange and study articles together. But when we met together last night, we just sat in the café and chatted together like two girlfriends, jumping back and forth between Chinese and English (sometimes even in the same sentence.) It was a much-needed respite for both of us. Her toddler went through surgery two weeks ago and just recently had started to recover. My situation isn’t nearly as serious, but I was also in desperate need of a break from my thesis writing.

As you would expect, American girlfriends and Chinese girlfriends talk about very different topics from both a social and a cultural perspective. In China, women are always on the lookout for “matchmaking” opportunities and actively discussing their single friends and colleagues, to see if they could find a partner for them. (I cannot tell you how many times people have arranged for me to meet up with them and their single friends, just for me to discover that I was getting “matched.”) However, on a more serious note, many Chinese girlfriends are also still actively discussing, now that the government allows them to have more than one baby, the implications on their careers and families. Last night, my friend vented her frustration about having another child, “I am so frustrated with my husband right now. He can’t seem to think about anything else other than having a second baby. Every sentence he says to me seems to end in ‘a second baby.’ I am not sure if I even want a second baby, but I know I certainly don’t want one right now.”

In October 2015, the state-owned media company Xinhua (pronounced sheen-wa) announced that the People’s Republic of China would be adopting a “two child policy.” In doing so, China sent shockwaves throughout the world. Stock prices for Chinese baby product companies skyrocketed; human rights advocates celebrated this loosening of family planning restrictions; academics pondered what this would mean for the future of China’s pensions.

Living in Beijing at this time in 2015, I discussed this policy change with many of my Chinese classmates. During these discussions, I was surprised by the differences of opinions expressed by my male Chinese peers, who always referred to their future “children,” in contrast with those opinions expressed by my female Chinese peers, who instead referred to their future “child.” (What is interesting is that in Chinese, due to the simple grammatical structure, the word for “children” and “child” are essentially the same, 孩子.) These young women, students at one of China’s most prestigious universities, were worried about what the enactment of the “two child policy” would mean for their future careers.

Much scholarship has been written about the impact of China’s demographic policy on women, mostly from a negative perspective. In 1990, Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen termed the phrase “lost girls,” referring to the fact that there are many more males than females, particularly in developing countries. China was one such country plagued by the problem of lost girls – so much so that by 2020, there will be an estimated 30 million men unable to find a wife. Scholars still debate the specifics, but it is mostly agreed upon that a Confucian bias toward males coupled with the “one child policy” led to: female infanticide, lack of official government registration of daughters, sex-selective abortion, abandonment of female babies, as well as parental neglect or lack of adequate care for daughters, contributing to their early deaths.

Today, the “one child policy” is viewed as an overwhelmingly foolish policy by most individuals. Many men (particularly in the countryside) are having a difficult time finding wives and subsequently, illegal marriage markets for Southeast Asian wives have sprouted up. Moreover, as the current population of China ages, many worry that there will not be enough young people to take on the burden of caring for them. While the negatives can certainly not be ignored, I have noticed that the “one child policy” did create positive externalities, as it pertained to women’s empowerment in Chinese society.

At Peking University, I took a course entitled “China’s Demographic Policy.” In my final paper, I wrote about these positive externalities. The posts over the next several days will focus on different aspects of this paper.

First, I will focus on how the “one child policy” transformed Chinese girls’ societal roles as sisters. These policies have counteracted the traditional “dilution theory,” stating that with more children there are less resources for parents to invest in each of these children. In China, this is particularly important, as traditionally, parents would invest much less resources for their daughters rather than for their sons.

The second post will be about the transformation of has been Chinese girls’ social roles as daughters. As younger women, parents invest heavily in their daughter’s education and development to make them excel in the professional sphere. This differs from the parents of males, who must invest not only in their son’s education, but also must save up money in order to enhance their son's future success in the marriage market. This investment in female education subsequently provides women with the increased skills to pursue high level jobs in the future, thus solidifying their abilities to provide for their parents in their old age. This filial piety allows women to actively participate in the traditionally male-dominated Confucian society.

The last post will focus on how China’s demographic policy changed Chinese women’s societal roles as mothers, by signaling to potential employers that they would only need one pregnancy leave, thus making women more desirable in the labor market.