Is women’s well-being the key to solve China’s population crisis?
According to the Confucian tradition, the identity of Chinese women is tied to their part in men’s life. However, China’s economic growth ended up creating a generation of women who are denying those traditional roles. During my research for this article, I talked to a few Chinese women; their thoughts on love, marriage, family, and kids can paint an interesting picture of how the social well-being of women can be the key to achieving the population growth level the country needs to continue with its development. I will be using their English names to protect their privacy.
Rise in individualism
The last Chinese census shows that the birth rates are down in alarming ways. Chinese women have 1.3 kids, a number that is way lower than the necessary rate of 2.1 kids, that would successfully fulfill the population circle.1 The promulgation of the Two-Child Policy in 2015 did not tip the scales to a better birth rate in the long term. Modern Chinese women now have higher education, higher salaries, and more independence, creating a generation of women who are less likely to marry and/or have kids.2
Krystal is 26 years old and comes from a wealthy family. She was in a relationship for four years and even got engaged. However, when confronted with the upcoming nuptials and the reality of joining her fiancé’s family, she called the wedding off and now claims that marriage is not for her. When asked what made her turn her back to a long and harmonious relationship, Krystal claims that although her then-fiancé was an open and modern man, his family wasn’t, and according to Chinese tradition, she would separate herself from her family, “belonging” to her husband’s. “But, why”, I asked, “don’t you try again with other men?” She explained that her ex was an exception, and even with him, she couldn’t find the freedom she looks for. “My parents allowed me to be whatever I wanted, I do not need to settle,” says Krystal.
The freedom to choose one’s path is new to these women, and they don’t take this opportunity lightly. A recent survey conducted by a wing of China's Communist Youth League3 interviewed 2,905 young urbans aged 18 to 26, and found that 44 percent of the female respondents did not intend to get married, while 25 percent of the survey's male respondents said the same. When questioned about the reason to deny marriage, 34,5 percent said that they don’t have the time or the energy to do so. A lot of them also claimed they find it hard to meet the right person. The financial burden of marriage and kids was also cited as an issue.
To help families with the burden of investing in their kid's education, the government made massive changes in the education industry this year.4
The financial and social burden
Finding herself pregnant with her new boyfriend's baby was a big surprise for 33-year-old Vicki. But she and her fiancé decided to go through with it, get married and start their family. Neither Vicki nor her husband came from well-off backgrounds, so both of their families helped them every step of the way. They were able to buy an apartment, and welcome a healthy baby girl. When asked whether her in-laws meddle in her family life, and if her husband is okay with the only-one-baby decision, Vicki just says: “We can only handle one baby with all that she deserves. The older she gets, the more responsibilities with school we will have, and I can’t handle taking care of the studies of more than one child and having a full-time job.” “So, that is it, one happy baby is all I can do,” says Vicki.
The lack of support when having a baby is another issue that haunts women in China. It is common to lose your job coming back from maternity leave, and, although it is against the law, employers discriminate against moms or even newly-wed women, because according to their point of view, her likelihood of getting pregnant will disturb her job.5 Although the burden of taking care of a house can come up in their relationship, for a lot of women the treatment they receive in the job market also tips the scale in frowning on marriage and kids. For example, in China, women are entitled to at least 98 days of maternity leave according to national law, with an extra 15 days for each additional child in multiple births. Employers are required to pay maternity insurance so that after a female employee gives birth, she will receive a monthly allowance from the government fund.6 However, such payouts are capped. If the employee's monthly salary exceeds the maximum allowance payable by the local government, the employer will need to fill in the gap.
Gender Inequalities in the Workplace
The first time I met Lily, she had just gotten a job. She told me she moved to a new city, following her boyfriend, who she’s been with for 6 years. After a few more talks, she confessed she was already married, but, while she was searching for a job every time the subject came up, she was questioned about having a baby soon, and lost her chances. She decided then to claim she had a boyfriend and only announced the marriage after a long holiday, like the Spring Festival, as it had just happened. Her plan seemed to work since she got a job after changing her speech.
The Chinese government has issued a directive banning a wide range of discriminative measures against women in the hiring process. Launched in 1994, this Anti-Discrimination Law includes asking women about their marital and childbearing status, and many other laws focused on anti-discrimination. However, there are gaps such as proving that the reason for termination of a contract was pregnancy or the long wait in those kinds of cases in court. In September of 2021, China's Cabinet released a ten-year plan to improve women's lives in the workplace, in an attempt to fight these gaps.7
Women can be the key element to chase away the phantom of the low birth rate. Nevertheless, the strategy created and implemented to boost growing families doesn’t embrace the modern women of China. The educated, ambitious, independent, courageous women are looking for equality, stability, support, empathy, so that they can, just like the men, build their Chinese dream.
References / To go further
Luo Yahan, “New Mothers to Get Another Month of Leave in Five Provinces,” SixthTone, November 30, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1009083/new-mothers-to-get-another-month-of-leave-in-five-provinces. Lee Jane Lanhee, “Researcher Questions China's Population Data, Says It May Be Lower,” Reuters, December 3, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/researcher-questions-chinas-population-data-says-it-may-be-lower-2021-12-03/.
Qian Yue and Li Jianxing, “Separating Spheres: Cohort Differences in Gender Attitudes about Work and Family in China,” China Review 20, no. 2 (May 2020): 19-52.
许莹莹, “青年婚恋意愿调查：面对婚姻，年轻人在忧虑什么?,” gmw.cn, October 8, 2021, https://m.gmw.cn/2021-10/08/content_1302631544.htm.
Kevin McSpadden, “China’s education reform creates havoc as students head back to school,” South China Morning Post, August 28, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/economy/article/3146833/chinas-education-reform-creates-havoc-students-head-back-school.
Ni Dandan and Zhu Jingyi, “As China Pushes More Births, Mothers Find it Harder to Work,” Sixthtone, December 9, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1009175/as-china-pushes-more-births%2C-mothers-find-it-harder-to-work.
Zhang Wanqing and Li Yijuan, “China Calls for Greater Gender Equality in Works, Politics, and Home,” SixthTone, September 28, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1008606/china-calls-for-greater-gender-equality-in-work%2C-politics%2C-and-home. Jingkui Li, “The Question Facing China’s Maternity Leave Advocates: Who Pays?,” SixthTone, December 17, 2021, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1009240/the-question-facing-chinas-maternity-leave-advocates-who-pays%3F.
Jamie Burnett, “Women’s Employment Rights in China: Creating Harmony for Women in the Workforce,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 17, no.2 (Summer 2010): 289-318. Zhang and Li, “China Calls.”