Even if China switches to a three-child policy, it shouldn’t force women to have more babies

Haining Liu says China is desperate to defuse a demographic time bomb, as the labour force shrinks and the national pension plan is stretched thin. But the state shouldn’t be pressuring women into motherhood

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 2:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 8:15pm

As a 30-something single woman living in Beijing, I rarely think about babies. After all, there are quite a few hurdles to overcome – getting married; maintaining a stable, high enough post-tax income to cover living costs; miraculously buying a million-dollar flat in the city that is big enough to raise my future child – before I can even sit at the table and join the discussion.

But my heart still sank when I read a recent post on social media about babies. Specifically, Xinhua Daily, a state-owned newspaper in Jiangsu province, published an article on August 14 suggesting a “reproduction fund” to which citizens under the age of 40, regardless of gender, must contribute every year and from which families with two or more children can get allowances.

The think piece was presenting the policy advice of two academics from Nanjing University. Under their proposal, citizens who do not have two children will get their money back from the fund only when they retire.

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At first, I could not get my head around the underlying logic of such policy advice. I am an only child. And, if I remember correctly, for much of the past four decades, Chinese families had to pay a heavy penalty for having a second baby. Now, if this advice is ever taken, we will be required to pay a compulsory amount for not having a second child.

This is confusing. To me, it feels less like a measure to encourage more births and more like a tax, or even worse, some kind of punishment for those who choose not to, or simply cannot, have a second child. Is it fair?

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Then I realised that the logic behind coercing people to have two children was no different from the one-child policy, which punishes families financially for having more than one child. According to China’s State Council regulations, families that have more children than allowed will be charged a fee, which is normally three times the average annual income in the region.

The similarity is uncanny. As human beings, we don’t seem to be free to decide whether we want to have children, and for that matter, how many.

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Understandably, the policy proposal might have sprung from desperation. For decades, the restriction on reproduction has brought about a massive gender imbalance due to the preference for boys, particularly in rural areas, as well as a shrinking workforce – boding ill for a national pension plan that has been stretched thin in recent years by a growing number of senior citizens.

According to the think piece, the number of Chinese women at peak fertility will drop by about 40 per cent within the next 10 years. China’s fertility rate faces a significant fall. Some experts have called the situation a “cliff fall”.

Although China adopted a two-child policy in 2015, it has failed to achieve immediate results. Statistics show how the number of births dropped despite the policy shift, from 17.86 million in 2016 to 17.23 million in 2017. Some Chinese experts have argued that the policy adjustment was too little, too late and are now actively proposing that the government take more aggressive measures.

Facing a demographic challenge, the government should indeed consider practical policy changes that encourage young people to have more babies. These incentives could include tax cuts, free childcare services, longer maternity leave, as well as family-friendly employment policies to help women returning to work after childbirth.

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Nonetheless, the country’s decision-makers must evaluate proposals like the “reproduction fund” carefully, weighing them against citizens’ basic rights and interests, and considering potential long-term impacts. We have already seen the irreversible consequences of the decades-old one-child policy. It would make little sense to correct one mistake by making another.

Also this month, People’s Daily, the state newspaper, published a piece titled “Having a baby is a family matter and also a national matter”. I partially agree. But reversing the demographic trend takes both political commitment and public confidence, and the latter is more important.

I know babies are adorable, and the more the merrier. However, as an only child, I worry whether I could take care of two ageing parents and two young children at the same time, without sacrificing a lifestyle I have worked so hard to achieve.

And, as a Chinese woman, I am strongly against women being treated as baby machines. The decision to give birth or not is probably one of the most important in a woman’s life. In a modern, civilised society, this should be a personal choice first and foremost.

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In a possible coincidence, China Post unveiled a set of new zodiac-themed stamps depicting a happy family with three piglets. Speculation followed that Chinese parents might soon be able to, or even be required to, have three children.

However, we are not pigs. And when it comes to having babies, we should have free will, and the freedom to choose.

Haining Liu is a journalist and aspiring author