After decades of China’s one-child policy, it became obvious to Beijing’s leaders that they were staring down the barrel of a demographic gun. With an aging population and a rapidly shrinking labor force, more children were vital if the country was going to maintain economic growth. That’s why, at the end of 2015, the one-child policy became the two-child policy—prompting eager anticipation of a baby boom in state media.
That boom never appeared, to the consternation of many. There’s a simple reason why: The cost of raising a child in China is at an all-time high and getting more expensive; doubling or tripling that budget is an insurmountable task for many. It’s a common pattern in developed countries, where birthrates fell even without government pressure.
This has led some to point out the obvious: Pro-natal policies centered around parental benefits and subsidized child care would solve many families’ budget issues and allow them to add to their brood comfortably. But all signs are that China’s new natalism will mirror the coercion of the one-child policy, with strategies lifted directly from a tried-and-true playbook of state power and control over the womb.
China has some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the world, but that has nothing to do with state support for bodily autonomy—it’s because abortion coincided with the government’s desires. Female bodies have always been treated as state property that yielded what the country needed. After over three decades of merciless enforcement of the one-child policy through fines, forced abortions, and forced sterilizations, the incoming demographic crisis is pushing things in a new, but equally intrusive, direction.
Under Chinese Communist Party rule, women’s equality in China has seen numerous seeming gains, but without substantial follow-through. China was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979, and it has integrated comprehensive protection against gender discrimination into its policies. Mao Zedong’s famous quote, “Women hold up half the sky,” is often touted by those who cite China’s high female employment rate (reaching its peak in the late 1970s at 90 percent employment for working-age urban women) or number of self-made female billionaires as evidence of significant progress toward gender equality.
But beneath this apparent commitment to empowering women, much of the feminist messaging has always been propaganda more concerned with boosting the labor force than actually promoting women. Chinese women continue to deal with a significant gender pay gap—they earn 22 percent less than men—and the laws serve more as PR than as protection for women’s rights.
As the one-child policy drew closer to its end, the official rhetoric that once encouraged women to marry later and delay motherhood for a better life gradually changed.
In 2007, the term “leftover women” was made popular by the All-China Women’s Federation, used to ridicule educated women who are not yet married. When the one-child policy officially concluded in 2015, the “late marriage late birth” perks—given to women waiting to marry until they were over 23 years old and men marrying over 25—of 18 additional marriage leave days and 45 additional maternity leave days were immediately abolished.
Meanwhile, the popular narrative has gone from “delayed motherhood is beneficial for women’s health” to “pregnancy during university improves employment chances in the future.” “Painless abortion” ads were seamlessly replaced by “painless childbirth” ads. Huang Xihua, a National People’s Congress representative who is outspoken on women’s topics, has condemned the high number of abortions that she blames for damaging women’s health, and she has also recommended that the marriage age for women be lowered to 18. All of these narratives are wrapped around the will of the party itself, which is that “giving birth is not only a family matter but also a national issue.”
The new natalism has the old skeleton of state control, molded with fresh flesh. In part, it aims to make use of the extensive National Health and Family Planning Commission, which according to 2006 figures employs around 500,000 people, one quarter of whom are Communist Party cadres, in 82,350 regional offices across the country. Some one-child policy enforcers who once carried out the dirty work of keeping birthrates down have switched roles to encourage women to get pregnant. The “one child” propaganda of yesteryear is being condemned for “morbid unluckiness” and supplanted by a celebration of traditional family values and natural feminine roles of daughter, wife, and mother. Banners, newspapers, TV shows, industry experts—every available medium is being turned into part of a propaganda machine touting the benefits of giving birth for the nation.
This “pro-life” stance in China will not be modeled after the Christian-led model in the West, but the moralizing and objectification of women’s bodies will be extremely similar. Rather than focusing on the sanctity of unborn life, eugenics and traditional family values will make up two essential pillars of future Chinese natalist policies. This means “high quality” Han children produced in a legitimate marriage are the only ones the state is interested in, and unmarried pregnant women will face coercion to marry or to abort.
Freely-chosen abortion will be increasingly regulated, with hurdles such as spousal approval, doctor’s approval, mandatory hesitation periods, and required counseling. It is likely that students will soon receive more directed sex education, with clear messaging on abstinence until marriage and optimal birthing age for more intelligent offspring. In short, the government’s strong grip on governing fertility will remain unchanged.
The onset of these heavy-handed changes has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese public, particularly the well-educated middle-class women who came of age fighting for their place in society beside the men. The women born after 1990 who are currently in their supposed fertility golden period are part of the so-called lonely generation, many of whom are much more individualistic and prioritize career and personal interests over motherhood. Under enormous pressure on all fronts, these women are expected to advance their careers, maintain their looks, run their households, raise successful children, and have fun—a frenetic juggling act that can hardly accept a second child without crashing down. For these young women, giving up everything to focus on motherhood is an unthinkable option, one that would cost them their selfhood, as well as their social standing.
The tension between what Chinese women want and what the state wants for them will only grow as the Chinese birthrate continues dropping, and women who withhold their fertility from their country will face repercussions. The party will push for women to accept timely motherhood as their only choice rather than one out of many, and this is why they are likely to face punishment (as extra births were punished under the one-child policy) rather than generous incentives to have children.
Of course, there are better ways to encourage childbirth. Perks such as legal protection for mothers at the workplace, extended maternity and paternity leave, and child care subsidies enjoyed by mothers in countries such as Sweden and Japan would offer women too much freedom and obscure the notion that motherhood isn’t a choice, but a duty. Under Xi Jinping’s patriarchal rule, obedient daughters must know their place.
Once, the party called upon women to throw themselves into the labor force, to settle for having just one child regardless of how many they wanted. Today, Chinese women’s newly updated destiny is to alleviate China’s shrinking labor force and aging population with their wombs.