New law unlikely to persuade many mainland mums to have second child

Mainland mums may now have a second child, but the cost of providing all the best for even one little darling is making a lot of them twice shy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 9:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 6:41am

Shanghai mother Rosa Xia is allowed to have a second child. She doesn't think she can afford it.

She figures 20 per cent of the 6,000 yuan (HK$7,600) a month she earns as a nanny goes to her 12-year-old daughter Amy: food, school, saxophone and ballet lessons. Then there's saving for her college education.

"She saw people playing saxophone on TV, got interested and asked for lessons. It's expensive, so of course I'd rather she hadn't asked, but I gave it to her anyway," says the migrant worker, who scrimps on clothing and her own meals to give her daughter the chance of a better future.

Doting parents like Xia, 39, help explain why Beijing's move to ease family planning rules is unlikely to reverse falling birth rates that have saddled the mainland with a shrinking labour pool and ageing population.

The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress approved rules in November that allow couples to ask for permission to have a second child in cases where one parent is an only offspring. That loosened the policy that allowed a second baby only if both parents are only children.

Lifting the restrictions - imposed through fines, forced abortions and sterilisation - may prove popular at home and with human rights advocates abroad. But the state's attempts to stop meddling with family size faces roadblocks, including Confucian traditions, urbanisation, rising living costs and expectations wrought by China's economic resurgence.

"The fact is, a huge change in mentality about family, children and the future is evident," says Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based policy group. "China is heading in the direction of other low-fertility East Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan."

Cost is at the forefront of the minds of many parents.

Watch: What do Chinese think about the easing of one-child policy?

Many baby goods cost more in China than they do in the US, partly because of Chinese parents' willingness to spend on their only progeny.

Beijing introduced the one-child policy in 1979 after the population jumped more than 70 per cent in the three decades after the Communist Party came to power, even as the economy stagnated.

Chen Wei, a demographer at Beijing's Renmin University, has said the policy was being relaxed because of the lingering low birth rate. There has also been a sharp drop in the number of workers under 30, as well as an abnormally high ratio of newborn boys to girls.

The population will rise just 0.45 per cent this year to 1.36 billion, according to US Census Bureau estimates.

The population in other Asian countries is faltering, as well. Japan's population will shrink for a sixth year; South Korea and Taiwan's will grow less than 1 per cent.

"They share common cultural values that place enormous emphasis on the success of their children," says Wang Feng, a sociology professor at University of California, Irvine. "Chinese parents want their children to be successful, and they do this by having fewer and investing in them."

The corollary is inflation, both in the money and the time it takes to rear a child, as parents wage an arms race to secure the best of the limited opportunities available - raising the barrier to entry for a second child.

For example, to get into a good school, many parents pay a large "sponsorship fee" or buy an apartment in the area. To make them stand out, parents sign up children for expensive or unusual activities. Xia proudly related how her daughter was top of her class in origami.

"Fierce competition and the social eagerness to get ahead or at least to stay on par with peers - especially on things symbolising success, such as a house, car and other consumption goods - are still the main forces that drive Chinese society," says Cai Yong, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina in the US. The demographic trend of urbanisation - long established globally as an effective contraception - is magnifying the effect. As more and more children enter cities, their parents are forced into competition for limited resources, says Cai.

Xinhua has estimated it costs 2.76 million yuan to rear a child from birth to college in Beijing.

The report on the news organisation's website cited an informal survey and calculations suggesting that a husband and wife earning the average per capita income would need to work for 23 years without eating and drinking to afford it.

More than half the 900 respondents in a separate informal survey after the policy announcement, carried out by the internet portal Sina, said they wouldn't have a second child because the financial stress was too great.

The cost of bringing up a son is also turning a long-ingrained Confucian preference for male children on its head.

In Shanghai, where men are expected to own their own home before they get married, daughters are becoming more popular, a government poll of 1,005 city residents showed in November. Almost 45 per cent of respondents said they would feel less burdened with a female child as there would be no pressure to buy a house.

Even on the farm, where the extra hands that come with big families were once seen as a bonus, attitudes are changing.

Wu Dehui, 52, an asparagus farmer from Anhui province, says the eldest of his three sons chose to stop at one child.

"These days, you have to send children to kindergarten, buy them all sorts of snacks and stuff," says the tanned and wrinkled farmer. "In my day, you never needed to do that."

Sons are also expected to splurge on weddings these days, further adding to their expense, Wu and his wife says.

Ultimately, the system of residence permits, or hukou, may be the biggest added cost for migrant workers such as Shanghai-based nanny Xia. The Jiangsu province native and her daughter are excluded from health and education benefits that card-carrying Shanghai city residents get.

"With a child, you really need to plan and budget," says Xia. "I want a second child, I just can't afford one."