We have been writing — and warning — for years about the Chinese government’s one-child policy and its disastrous long-term effects on the country’s population and society.
It feels like we have been documenting the melting of glaciers: a calamity, but a slow-moving one. For the past six years China moved swiftly from a one- to two- to three-child policy — only to be met with plummeting birth rates. Every marker of demographic decline is a reminder why regulating family size by force is a human rights disaster.
In January, the Chinese government announced that last year the country only added 480,000 people and the birth rate dropped to 7.5 per 1,000 people, the lowest in decades. Meanwhile, the percentage of older people has steadily risen, with people age 60 or above accounting for nearly one-fifth of the population. For the first time since the great famine of the Great Leap Forward in 1961, China’s population could contract this year, with fewer births than deaths, all of which is causing labor shortages, pension shortfalls, and a host of social problems.
How should the Chinese Communist Party address this demographic crisis?
China isn’t the only country trying to raise sagging birth rates — but it is by far the only country to have shed so much of its population without war or pestilence. It did so through the introduction of the one-child policy, a radical, long-running social experiment that was vicious, inhumane, violated everyone’s reproductive rights, and resulted in a wildly uneven distribution by sex. It has led to an estimated 30-million male surplus — roughly an Australia-size population of bachelors — and an age distribution within the population at odds with the country’s economic health. As a result, the Chinese Communist Party is now turning to women and exhorting — some say hounding — them to have more children.
In an astonishing about-face, the one-child policy has turned into a “have one more child” policy — and then one more — but so far women aren’t buying it. The 2016 introduction of the two-child policy did lead to an initial spike in birth rates, but since then, births have dropped every year. Many have cited the high cost of child-rearing as a disincentive, but women — the main focus, target, and victims of the country’s whipsawing population planning policies — have also revolted against these latest attempts to restrict their reproductive choices.
Jonathan Swift once wrote a satire on how the Irish famine could be solved by eating children. For the country that has figuratively devoured its young, here is our Swiftian modest proposal on how the Chinese Communist Party should start to solve its population problem: with a sincere, massive apology to China’s women.
Say sorry for blaming them for the country’s negative population growth. Say sorry for stigmatizing unmarried women in their late 20s by calling them “leftover women.” Say sorry for violating their rights to make their own choices on marriage, work, and reproduction and, in general, not doing enough to take down patriarchal systems that put the burden for having more children and caregiving squarely on women’s shoulders.
In March, for example, the Jiangsu provincial authorities partly attributed their negative population growth — occurring for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 — to “the significant increase in women’s educational level.” The tone of the announcement — as if women’s education is to blame for China’s population problems — riled many. “So, no more foot-binding, but brain-binding now?” a netizen commented on Chinese social media platform Weibo.
While Chinese women are more educated than ever, workplace gender discrimination keeps holding them back from achieving their full potential. In China, differences in mandated parental leave — mothers can get up to six months of maternity leave, while paternity leave is at most 30 days — has encouraged discriminatory practices by employers and reinforced harmful gender norms. With China’s weak workplace protection laws, many companies are outright expressing a preference to hire men, or women who’ve already had their children, as Human Rights Watch research shows.
Since the 2016 lifting of the one-child policy, numerous women have described being asked about their childbearing status during job interviews, being forced to sign contracts pledging not to get pregnant or being demoted or fired for being pregnant. A recent college graduate said all five companies that she interviewed with asked about her marriage and childbearing plans, and three of them told her that they would not offer her the job if she wanted to have a child. A mother of one child was asked to sign a contract promising that she would not have a second for at least three years as a condition for a job offer. A woman was fired days after she informed her employer that she was pregnant. The list goes on and on. While Chinese law bans such discriminatory practices, it provides few effective enforcement mechanisms, leaving victims with inadequate avenues for redress.
While the goal of the two- and three-child policy is to encourage, not discourage, births, it’s still the same story as the one-child policy in the sense that women end up being punished for their fertility, one way or the other.
You might ask, how could the CCP saying sorry help China’s population crisis? Well, it might not do a lot to spur births, but the government’s long history of restricting women’s right to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy through abusive, and sometimes violent, means has instilled a deep fear and suspicion among many women in China that genuine attempts at reparation — however unlikely this might be to happen — would help alleviate.
One cannot begin to build happy families in a miasma of fear, suspicion, and rage.
Above all, Chinese women are owed abject and profound apologies for the extensive and inhumane acts committed against them during the one-child policy years, when the authorities subjected countless women to forced contraception, forced sterilization, and forced abortion, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
Genuine contrition doesn’t stop at words. The state should also urgently take practical steps to end gender inequality in all areas of society, including the workplace and home. In addition to meaningful measures to prevent employment discrimination, the government should end discriminatory parental leave policies, expand parental leave and protections for those who take it, ensure availability and affordability of childcare and other forms of professional caregiving, and provide equitable access to health care for pregnant women and their children. The stick has failed; this is what a carrot might look like.
Another easy solution to increase the birth rate is to allow people who are not traditionally parents to become parents, but this isn’t something the Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to do. Children born outside of marriage still face fines and denial of access to public services, and same-sex unions are not recognized. Single women are denied access to egg freezing procedures and in vitro fertilization, with the justification that these technologies could “instill unrealistic hope in women who might mistakenly postpone childbearing plans.”
A longer version of this essay was first published as part of Asia Society Australia’s Disruptive Asia Volume 5: Women and Girls.