China's big push for a baby boom

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This photo taken on January 5, 2024 shows people posing next to a newly renovated statue of a pair of parents and three children in Hankou Park next to Yangtze River in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. China's population decline accelerated in 2023, official data showed on january 17, 2024, extending a downward streak after more than six decades of growth as the country battles a looming demographic crisis. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on January 5, 2024 shows people posing next to a newly renovated statue of a pair of parents and three children in Hankou Park next to Yangtze River in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. China's population decline accelerated in 2023, official data showed on january 17, 2024, extending a downward streak after more than six decades of growth as the country battles a looming demographic crisis. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chinese government is urging women to have more babies — after decades of a one-child policy.

But officials face major pushback from Chinese women themselves.

Today, On Point: China’s push for a baby boom.


Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center. Frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.

Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China." Research associate at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Yangyang Cheng joins us today. She's a fellow and a research scholar at Yale Law School's Paul Tsai China Center. She's also a frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China Relations. Yangyang, welcome back to On Point.

YANGYANG CHENG: Thank you so much for having me. It's always a pleasure to have you on the show.

CHAKRABARTI: And today I want to talk with you about something we recently learned regarding a statue in Wuhan. So this is not a China hour that has anything to do with COVID. It's completely different. So this statue in Wuhan, it depicts or depicted some sort of family. Is that right Yangyang?

CHENG: Yes, so this is a sculpture in the shade of green that is next to the Yangtze River. It's a pretty popular sculpture, and it was initially constructed in 2017. And on the left, it has this circular structure, which in Chinese culture symbols family unity and completeness, and next to it are a few stick figures that symbolizes an ideal family.

And when the sculpture was initially constructed and for the years after, it was three figures, a father, a mother, and a child.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm actually looking at a photograph of the sculpture right now. It's exactly, as you described, it's quite beautiful.


CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Except it doesn't only have three figures on it in this picture.

CHENG: Not anymore. So some weeks ago, at the end of last year, two more figures were added to the sculpture. So now it depicts a five-member family where there were a father, a mother, and three children.

CHAKRABARTI: Indeed, because now the mother is holding the hand of two more children, it looks like possibly a little girl, and then another child with a scooter, looked like a razor scooter.

And this just happened mysteriously overnight.

CHENG: Because it's a pretty popular tourist spot, and so people noticed it and from social media photos and then compared with some of the earlier photos. So that's how the change was noticed. And it actually went viral on Chinese social media.

Because actually there is an ironic element to it that the sculpture is named Mei Hao Wei Lai, A Beautiful Future. And we know that for three and a half decades, when the one child policy was initially implemented at the end of 1979, it was exactly in the name of a better future for China. That this severe restriction on birth of families should only have one child was considered a necessity for China's future, for its path towards modernization.

But then like three and a half decades later, we are living in that future. And of course, it has caused severe issues with regards to the demographics of an aging population, of plummeting birth rate and gender imbalances. And so the Chinese netizens have noticed the irony, including some social media comments, said quote, "Let the sculpture have more kids because we cannot afford to."

CHAKRABARTI:  I shouldn't be laughing because this is a very serious issue, but it does, the sort of cheekiness of some of these social media responses in China is admirable. Because one of the comments that I see is, "Who would have time to take a walk with all that to do?" Regarding taking care of the children.

And then, "They should have a few more and line them up along the riverbank." Okay, now, obviously, so there was this viral moment and quite large response to the addition of two other child figures in this famous Wuhan sculpture. But China lifted or ended its one-child policy. What? In 2015, if memory serves.

So why all of a sudden now, late last year, as you said, did the government just add these two more children. So three children, as a celebration of China's possible future.

CHENG: Yeah, so this is actually an interesting point because this sculpture was only constructed in 2017. As you just mentioned, the Chinese government lifted the one child policy in 2015, allowing couples to have two children, and that policy was again modified in 2021.

So now the country's operating under a three-child policy, but on one hand, with three and a half decades of the one child policy as a basic national strategy that is beyond reproach. So it has this strong cultural and social hold in the popular imagination. On the other hand, the government's more recent push towards having, for couples to have more children has not been effective.

So I think the sculpture is a way of a delayed reaction to this kind of government's propaganda effort in terms of what an ideal Chinese family should look like.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So this is why we wanted to have you back on On Point today because we had been reading, over the past couple of months, that the Chinese government is trying to more publicly or aggressively push for an increase in the Chinese birth rate, right? For families, particularly women, to consider and definitely have more children. Up to three. Now, just so that we understand, I understand the facts of the situation.

This was an official policy change in 2021, you said.


CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So why now? What has been happening that's led to very prominent Chinese leaders, including President Xi, to talk about needing to to support and grow a quote-unquote culture of family in China now.

CHENG: So the way I would characterize this is to place a family planning policy in China into a longer and larger history, because there is, I know that one child policy is actually quite well known here in the U.S., but it's often depicted as something unique to Chinese authoritarianism or to communism.

But this is somewhat a misconception. Actually, during the Republican era in China, and during much of the communist and era of Mao-era China, especially in its early years, the Chinese government had an explicit pro-Natalist policy. That was partly as a moral considerations of a way to police sexuality.

On the other hand, also out of considerations that Mao famously said that more people equals more productive force and even very cross commons, including how a larger population is considered strategic asset in times of war. But then in the mid-1950s because of the rapid population growth. And also resource shortages, as well as women's inability to fully participate in production if they are having babies all the time.

The Chinese government started implementing family planning policies, but that during the Mao-era was largely uneven and inconsistent.


CHENG: And so the one child policy is very much a product of China under the reform era, as the country was trying to rebuild itself from Mao-era disasters. And it was under a very science and engineer led technocratic form of governance, saying that having, for a family to have only one child, as I mentioned earlier, was on one hand necessary for China's future.

On the other hand, it was scientific. It was considered progress as a step towards modernity. And when the policy was initially implemented in 1979, at the end of 1971 and 1980, it was very strict that families are only allowed to have one child, one child for all. And it was gradually relaxed in the 1980s, allowing ethnic minorities and some rural households to have up to two children.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. Can I just slip in here for a second? Because I want you to continue this historical analysis in a moment. But when you said that it was believed, it was seen as, technocratically, as a sign of modernization and national progress to have fewer children, down to one in each family.

Is that because a reduced need for additional workers essentially, was evidence of a nation's rise in modernity, that they just didn't need as many people to do labor. Tell me a little bit more about why that was seen as a sign of modernization.

CHENG: Absolutely. This is such a great question. Because at the time, actually, as I mentioned, it was indeed not demographers, but actually Chinese missile scientists, rocket scientists, who played an instrumental role in devising this one child policy. And a lot of them were influenced by these views coming from the west, from Europe as well.

The idea that a large population, or quote-unquote a population explosion or growth is a heavy burden on environment, on the ecosystem, on social and environmental resources. And it was also, there is a very distinct eugenics view. That it was somehow associated with a backwards culture, or it was only underdeveloped regions that people would have more kids.

And these Chinese scientists also felt that they had a very mechanical view of the human body. So they actually literally used the equations to calculate missile trajectories, to predict population growth. And there was also a political push, not in terms of population size per se, but in terms of what type of GDP per capita China should reach by the end of the century.

So there was some backwards calculation, as well, in terms of projected economic growth and then what kind of population that is needed. And these rocket scientists made these very crude, effective very crude calculations. Not taking into account these social, economic, cultural factors in terms of having children and came up with this one child policy.

And then because of the Mao era history, on one hand, the social sciences were effectively decimated. The natural scientists were also faced persecution.


CHENG: But the scientists were working areas related with national defense, was almost this unique group that had access to resources, had political protection and had high levels of social prestige. That they were able to leverage their scientific authority and their political capital too. And that also corresponded with the sentiments of the Chinese leadership at the time, that they needed science instead of communism after Mao-era disasters, as a basis for its new governing legitimacy in the reform era. So it was a confluence of factors that led to the implementation of the one child policy at the beginning of the 1980s.

CHAKRABARTI: You are so brilliant. This is so fascinating, Yangyang. I just again, want to pull out a couple of little things so that people really understand deeply all the incredible things you just said. Because you were talking about natural scientists and physical scientists being the majority of the scientists in China after the cultural Revolution.

Correct? Because there was a very organized campaign by Mao — right — to send a lot of the cultural social scientists to farmland or even a worse fate? Am I right about that? Or no? So you can tell me I'm wrong.

CHENG: I think it's slightly more nuanced in the sense was like the social sciences were decimated on one hand.

On the other hand, it was seen as very ideological, very politically controlled. On the other hand, the natural scientists, they were also persecuted. But the scientists working in national defense was this unique group that had a level of protection, but then there was also this idea, with this one child policy, because it was portrayed as so mathematical, it had a depoliticized flavor to it, that had mass appeal, as well as political appeal.


CHENG: After the Mao era.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean it's the Chinese form of techno-utopianism, which we have plenty of that here in the United States, too.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: We're talking about the very focused efforts by the Chinese government now to increase the birthrate in China. And specifically, how those efforts are being targeted on Chinese women to have them be, to consider having as many as three children. Now, as Yangyang Cheng told us earlier in the previous segment, this is the latest in a pattern from the Chinese government ever since the end of the one-child policy in 2015. And as Cheng mentioned, a couple of years after that, China officially announced a two-child policy. Two-child policy, actually, which started a year later in 2016.

So here is a clip from France 24, the French television news Network from 2018 and they speak with a Chinese woman who lives in Shanghai, from that 2018 report.

(CHINESE) Having one is tiring enough. Schooling and living costs here are expensive. So we’re under a lot of pressure. (CHINESE)

CHAKRABARTI: That's a woman in Shanghai reacting to the then two child policy. Here's another moment from France 24's reporting in 2018. This is Angela Bao in Ningbo, China. She actually said she was excited to have a second child under China's revised policy.

(CHINESE) Our generation are all single children and I always felt lonely. So I wanted to have two kids so they could play with each other. (CHINESE)

CHAKRABARTI: So the view from a couple of Chinese women back in 2018 when the two-child policy was put into place. But now, as I mentioned, the Chinese government is seeking to encourage women to have up to three children.

I'd like to bring Leta Hong Fincher into the conversation. She's author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China." And also, a research associate at Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Leta, welcome to On Point.

LETA HONG FINCHER: Thanks so much for having me, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: I'm delighted to have both of you on the show today for a number of the reasons, not the least of which is that the latest population data, I believe not so long ago, came out of China.

And we're seeing a continued decline in birth rate there. It wasn't that long ago that India surpassed China in total population. But tell me a little bit more about what we're seeing in those declining birth rates?

FINCHER: Sure. This is a really dramatic change for China's population. Because it's the second straight year that the entire population of China has actually declined.

And the last time prior to 2022 that the population shrank was at the beginning of the 1960s, in the middle of this political campaign called The Great Leap Forward when there was mass starvation. Just to put this demographic change in context. And now the birth rates have been declining for seven straight years.

So it does show you that all of these propaganda campaigns and policies to try to encourage families to have more children are failing.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And Yangyang, what do you think about that?

CHENG: Yeah, it is. It is in indeed true. And also last year because the death rate is higher in terms of 11 million because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the birth figure was only 9 million, which is, again, a decline.

And what is also really interesting, as Leta just mentioned. The birth rate has been declining years in a row, even though it is after the Chinese government officially ended one-child policy. So it's not being effective.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So this is an ongoing then cause for concern with the Chinese government. But Yangyang and Leta and I'll keep with you for a moment, Yangyang.

You know how you were describing this longer history of thinking about China's policies regarding population. There were very specific goals that you had mentioned in the past, regarding modernization, development, a view of what the Chinese government wanted the country to look like.

So what are the concerns driving the Chinese government now in advocating for three children per woman?

CHENG: Absolutely. And so if one look at the history, while the Chinese government under different regimes and political ideologies have different types of family planning policy, but there is a consistency, is that the types of state surveillance and control, the burden of family planning was primarily placed on women.

And during the early Mao era, the language was more about collectivism, that women were seen as both a productive force and reproductive force. In the present-day era, there is less language that is so closely associated with communism, but what the language has become is there is a referral back to traditional Chinese values. For example, with Xi Jinping's speech at the National Women's Congress last fall, where he first mentioned party leadership. Immediately afterwards was about how women should be the stewards of traditional family values. And how young people needs guidance to have the right types of views in terms of family and in terms of reproduction and quote "to confront an aging population."

So there is this really very patriarchal, but a return to a very traditional language as a way to encourage families, especially women, to become mothers. And that is also an element to this, is that it's not just entirely having people, encouraging people to have more children, but there is a very strong ideological sentiment to this, that is the traditional family unit that is being advocated for, that is seen as not just economically and socially necessary, but also as politically and ideologically correct.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh. Leta, tell me more about that. Because, generally speaking, when we think about nations that are concerned about their declining birth rates and aging population, Japan is probably one of the ones that comes to mind almost immediately. The concern seems to be primarily economic, right?

That can a nation with a declining birth rate support its economy or even grow it over time? But given what Yangyang just said, I'd love to hear what your thoughts are because it seems as if the government's efforts right now aren't just aimed at increasing the population overall, but they're focused on a particular sort of sub-cohort of Chinese women.

Do I have that right? Leta?

FINCHER: Yeah, absolutely. So this trend, even though Xi Jinping made these remarks just a few months ago, very explicitly saying China needs to embrace a marriage and child rearing culture, this trend has actually been going on for quite a long time, even before Xi Jinping came to power.

I write about the beginnings of this propaganda campaign where the government started deliberately pushing the term leftover women or Sheng nu starting in 2007. And it was producing a lot of blatantly misogynistic propaganda. Stigmatizing, especially single educated women who were 27 years old or older, and telling them that they had to hurry up and marry or no man would ever want them.

So the government has been pushing this very traditional role for women for quite a long time, trying to push women into these roles of wife and mother, dutiful, taking care of the family, being very obedient to the husband, taking care of the elderly, not just children. And so it's been a long time coming, but we see these efforts in really intensifying today.

CHAKRABARTI: And does that then come, again, it's rising into sharp relief with the focus on this message of women, like you said, more educated women in cities are really the ones that the government wants to have more children.

FINCHER: Yes. So there is an economic component to it. Because when I started researching the origins of this term. And way back in 2011, actually, when I was doing my PhD in sociology at Tsinghua University. I noticed that the state council just before this propaganda came campaign came out in January of 2007, the state council came out with a population decision, this important announcement saying that China has an urgent problem of quote-unquote, low population quality. That would make it difficult for China to compete internationally in the future, that its workforce was not sufficiently skilled.

So in order to produce a more skilled workforce of the future, the government urgently needed to quote-unquote upgrade population quality. And it announced that a number of different agencies including the All-China, Women's Federation should take this goal and orient all of its policies towards this goal of upgrading population quality.

And so I put these two different developments together. The fact that there was this new propaganda campaign trying to push single urban-educated women into getting married, basically urging these women that they should stop advancing their educations because it's making them too old.

They're going to be really unattractive. No man will want them. But on the other hand, there was this economic element, looking to the future, looking at the future shrinking of the workforce. And in fact, today we see that is actually what is happening. Is that the population is shrinking.

The workforce is shrinking. But it's not just an economic problem. It's very much a political problem, as well. And so the government sees marriage as a politically stabilizing institution. It has to be said that same-sex marriage is illegal in China, so that's a very rigid model of heterosexual marriage that results in today, results in three children.

And these are units, family units of stability. And if you look at the propaganda surrounding Xi Jinping's power, as well, he talks about, or the propaganda says that China is this nation state, which is like a big family. And in fact, is the word for it nation state or country in Chinese. And there are these official reports saying the word Xia family refers not just to the big family of China, but to every little family.

So every little family needs to be this stabilizing unit that has the man at the head of the household and together all these millions of stable family units come together and create a stable nation-state.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Yangyang, I'd love to hear what you think about all that, because I'm just curious about is there something additional, in addition to this view that heterosexual marriage and family is a very profound stabilizing force in a country, and particularly in China. But is there something even more that's giving, continue to give momentum of this sort of traditionalist view of China under President Xi? Because it's completely the opposite of what you were describing as the modernism push under previous Chinese regimes.

CHENG: Actually, I think here there are times when the language may seem contradictory, but there is consistency.


CHENG: And this has, as Leta just mentioned, in terms of this view of a individual family, individual body, constitutes a stronger, larger national family and national body. Actually has a much longer history in China.

One can date that back to the turn of the 20th century at the fall of the last Chinese empire when progressive Chinese intellectuals, and many of them were influenced by Western ideologies, including Darwinism and social Darwinism, and were thinking about, Oh the reason China was so weak at that time was because of the population didn't have high enough quality, and so it has been really a decades long or over a century long, push towards different ways to build healthy individual bodies and build the ideal types of families.

As a way to contributing to a stronger national body, but under specific social conditions, these specific policies and languages may differ. And so at currently, this return to tradition in terms of emphasizing traditional gender roles for women is still being portrayed as a necessity for China as to be a modern, strong nation.

And what is also very important here, as Leta also mentioned, is that it is needs to be a heterosexual family. And also, there is a strong strain of Han chauvinism to this as well.


CHENG: When --

CHAKRABARTI: No, continue. Yes, go ahead. Go ahead.

CHENG: When, as mentioned earlier, it's urban college-educated Han Chinese women who are encouraged to have more children, but traditionally on one hand ethnic minorities in China, under the one-child policy, were indeed allowed to have basically one more kid.

But the Chinese government, especially more recent years, has been placing more restrictions on say, Uyghur women, Kazakh women, Muslim women to restrict their births. One statistic is, for example, in from 2015 to 2018, when the nationwide usage of IUDs have decreased, and some regions even offered free IUD removal services as a way to encourage Han Chinese women to have more children.

The use of IUD insertions for Uyghur women have actually increased over that same time span.

CHAKRABARTI: The United States and China may not be that far apart. I am going to offer this. Maybe it's a little controversial. I don't know, but --

CHENG: Oh, but it's true.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. But I would say, because, yeah, because I would say first and foremost, the idea that a family is a stabilizing force in a society or culture that is not radical, I don't think.

People, that is a very commonly held belief and has been proven worldwide. The structure of that family really depends on culture to culture and the specificity with which the Chinese government is defining the structure. And who would make up that family. Perhaps that is something we should look with askance at. But the idea that families are important in terms of an individual's growth in a nation's well-being is not terribly controversial.

And we've also seen efforts here in the United States to reduce access to birth control. And so you can go ahead and respond to that, but that's what I wanted to point out here. In terms of perhaps we shouldn't be too critical of the Chinese government, or maybe it's the means by which they're instituting these policies that do deserve criticism.

CHENG: I think one thing that is important is to not exoticize or exceptionalize China. As I mentioned, a lot of this, these different ideologies from social Darwinism, to eugenics, including technocratic government of the Chinese thinkers and enforcers of these were under heavy western ideological influence.

On the other hand, what is also important to understand is that some of the policies practiced by the Chinese government with regards to policing the Uyghur population. And their birth controls are similar to how say Black and brown communities and indigenous communities here in the U.S. have faced similar birth restrictions.

And so it's important to place these in the historical and the transnational context to understand that patriarchy is certainly not uniquely Chinese.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Leta. It's typically easier, or at least I think it's easier for a government to apply restrictions on people, right?

The exercise of power to reduce folks' access to various things, including restricting the birth rate or the number of children that women have. China did that very effectively for decades. It's a different thing to try and ask people to do more of something they may not necessarily want to do, right? To give incentives to have more children. Can you describe some of the measures that the Chinese government has undertaken to encourage women to have more babies?

FINCHER: Sure. It starts with the removal of these very rigid restrictions on the number of babies that you were allowed to have for over three and a half decades.

In the cities you were limited to effectively one child, although, there was some wiggle room because, you could be fined if you had another child. Or in the countryside also, that policy wasn't necessarily as rigidly enforced. But today, so the government initially had hoped that just removing those restrictions and saying that now they have a two-child policy, now they have a three-child policy, that then all these women would start popping out babies.

But that's not what happened. So they have tried to offer some incentives, but I have to say, these are not substantive incentives. They're little things that sometimes can take on an implicit threatening meaning. Like in one county, there was the introduction of a small cash reward to a newlywed couple if the bride is 25 years old or younger.

There are these reports that there are local population planning officials calling newlywed couples and asking them, have they, has the woman gotten pregnant yet? And there are also a lot of restrictions on vasectomies now. It's much harder to get a vasectomy. So of course, as you mentioned earlier, the U.S. has basically reversed the right to an abortion in many states. So China has not yet done anything like that. And it's interesting, to just ponder why that is, because it is an autocratic state. It would be very easy for Xi Jinping to come out and say abortion is hereby banned.

But the fact that hasn't happened yet is really this fascinating gray area where you see that even Xi Jinping himself recognizes that young women today, especially those who have gone to college, they really don't want to be pushed into marriage or having babies. And they're saying no to this kind of pressure. And if you just look at, I actually believe that young women's resistance to these kinds of pro-natalist, pro-marriage policies are really key to the shrinking of China's population as well.

Because just based on all of the research I've done over many years, a lot of interviews with young women. That their attitudes have changed significantly over the last decade, from a decade ago thinking I'm in a bad relationship, but I need to get married. Because that's just what everybody expects me to do. To today, more and more young women saying, I just don't think marriage is really attractive, and I'd rather do my own thing.

Maybe I want to continue my education, or I want to go pursue my career or travel if I can, especially after the pandemic. So that resistance is very strong, even in an authoritarian state like China.

CHAKRABARTI: We know that across the world, any country that rightfully invests in the increase of access of women to society increases women's education.

One of the things that happens is the population growth rate does start declining. And that is considered a success, right? Because you have more, you have 50% of the population more thoroughly invested in contributing into the society as a whole. But with your thoughts about the attitudes of young Chinese women, I want you to hold that thought for a second.

And Yangyang, I will come to you on that, but just briefly, Leta, I've also been seeing things like in terms of nudges that the Chinese government has been using, things that range from the subtle, but perhaps effective, like calling young people's parents to get them to apply pressure to their kids, to have children. To things more explicit, like employers not hiring women so they stay out of the workforce and can be mothers or much more restrictive laws around divorce to keep women in relationships.

Is that right, Leta?

FINCHER: Oh, absolutely. This goes to the other the element of threat or coercion or punishment. So I mean, there has been for a long-time widespread gender discrimination on the part of employers who, even though it is illegal in China, employers continue to routinely ask young women applying for jobs.

When are you getting married? Or if you're married, when are you having your first baby? Now, when are you having your second baby? And it's widely documented that this gender discrimination has been very bad for a long time. You even see job ads, and this used to be much more common in the past, but then it was outlawed, just all job ads explicitly saying, we're looking to hire men.

Rather than women. And then in the last, just the last couple of years, the government has made it much more difficult, especially for women, to get a divorce. And in 2021, the government introduced something called a divorce cooling off period, which sounds really innocuous, but it just says you have to wait a period of time before going ahead with a divorce.

But behind that innocuous sounding title is if you look at, there's really great research on divorce lawsuits that has been published recently by a sociologist. That says that basically, especially if you're a woman, you are almost guaranteed that the divorce judge is going to deny you your divorce request in the court of law the first time.

And if you really want to get a divorce, you're going to have to file a second time. And that whole procedure of going through a divorce court, it's extremely painful and expensive. And time consuming. So this is effectively trapping all of these women, many of whom are getting abused by their partners, just trapping them in marriages.

CHAKRABARTI: So Yangyang, that brings us back to something Leta was saying earlier about the change in attitudes and desires for many of China's young women. And for example, this is from 2022 again from France 24, and they spoke to a woman named Zhu Huijuan, excuse me, who had just given birth to a baby girl in Shanghai, and she said, No, she didn't want to have more children that this would be her only child.

(CHINESE) For now, I haven’t thought about a second because society’s pretty cruel towards working mothers. It’s not easy to take care of oneself, one’s family and one’s career. (CHINESE) 

CHAKRABARTI: And here's another voice. This is Tina Wang. She told Singaporean TV Network, CNA Insider in 2021 that she and her partner don't want children at all because they enjoy having time together as a couple.

She also said she does not want to give up her career. "I love my work," she said. "I can't bear the thought that if I do have kids, I'd have to be a full-time mother and do nothing else. In terms of spiritual health, it's not fulfilling."

CHAKRABARTI: So Yangyang, what has changed for China's women in this most recent sort of generation of childbearing age that's allowing them to resist rather publicly the government's efforts to encourage them to have more children?

CHENG: Yeah, this is such an interesting question, because I myself I'm born as a product of the one child policy, and I was actually university student when the government started this propaganda drive with regards to quote-unquote leftover women. So I feel very much like intimately these kinds of social and political pressures.

But what is also really interesting, as Leta also mentioned and articulates in her book, that a lot of these punitive measures are not effective and actually can backfire. For example, making it much harder for women to get divorced. There is also contributing factor that the marriage rate in China has also been declining. And trapping women on happy marriages is not an effective way for them to produce more children.

And I think what is also very important here is not to overemphasize, like deciding not to get married or deciding not to have children or more than one children, per se. But because on the other hand, there are also queer couples in China who really would like to get married. And queer couples and single women in China who really want to have children, even though the Chinese government restricts access to reproductive technologies for queer couples and single women, including egg freezing and IVF.

Actually, in 2019, there is a single woman in China who sued a hospital in Beijing for refusing her egg-freezing services and she lost, and then she has appealed, and that final verdict is still pending. So I think these should be viewed in conjunction, whether it's a woman refusing to get married or refusing to have children, or single women trying to access reproductive technology or queer couples fighting for their parental or reproductive rights.

These are all the younger generation of Chinese people who are resisting state pressure, resisting the state's hegemonic view of what an ideal family should look like, what an ideal role of a woman should be in society.

CHAKRABARTI: Is the government under President Xi very sensitive to this resistance? Because it's saying something about the limits of let's say, Xi Jinping-style authoritarian rule in China. That maybe might be something interesting to observe from other countries that have close relationships with China.

CHENG: Indeed. Oh, sorry. Go ahead.

FINCHER: Oh. I just wanted to add, if you're talking about resistance as well and the limits of Xi Jinping's authority, it's interesting to look at the end of 2022, the white paper protests. Where this was when China was still imposing an incredibly draconian lockdown for the pandemic where so many families were actually locked in their homes. And so all of these, a lot of young people in many cities across China took to the streets and were holding blank pieces of paper as a symbol of repression. And this was a blatantly political protest that was calling on the government to end the Zero COVID lockdown, and there may not be a direct correlation, but it's a curious coincidence that just a few days after those protests, Xi Jinping just suddenly said, okay, yeah, the lockdowns are over.

So even Xi has to respond to demands coming from the population.

CHAKRABARTI: Yangyang, go ahead. I would love to hear your thoughts on that, too.

CHENG: Yeah, indeed. Actually, Leta is one of the foremost experts on this, including in her other book "Between Big Brother," about the feminist resistance in China and the Chinese government's crackdown on that, which has been, the crackdown has been intensifying in more recent years, including this very patriarchal but also nationalist narrative.

Portraying feminists as like foreign hostile forces or under Western influence. On the other hand, what we've also seen is that the feminist movement in China has been sustained, even with these crackdowns that move, it moves underground. And it also has been sustained in cyberspace and also in the Chinese diaspora.

And we saw, as Leta just mentioned, during the white paper protest a little over a year ago, against strict COVID lockdowns, a lot of the leaders, the most prominent voices and the people on the front lines were young Chinese women and queer people. And this is also another element to see the vitality and the resilience of this feminist movement from China.

And that's what continuously gives me hope.

CHAKRABARTI: Yangyang, we have just under a minute left, and if I may, I'd love you to talk for a second or two more about how you said these issues are really, they resonate with you personally given the time you were born in China growing up as a Chinese woman.

Just, do you have more thoughts about that?

CHENG: Yeah, so in terms of my personal example, I think I grew up in a very traditional conservative Chinese family, and I see these kinds of conflicted views, including like from my own mother. On one hand, she's a very ambitious, capable, independent woman.

She raised me as a single mother, and she pushed me for academic excellence. On the other hand, also, when I was at university in the late 2000's and when the leftover women narrative was starting, and she was also telling me that I should quickly find a life partner at university. And ask actually, like the way to access an elite education primarily for women is to have access to elite men.

So I think I myself do experience this, and I think some of this is understandable. But I also think that there are ways to have more imagination, to think about the possibilities of how to towards self-realization as a Chinese woman.

This program aired on February 8, 2024.


Headshot of Claire Donnelly

Claire Donnelly Producer, On Point
Claire Donnelly is a producer at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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