After three Lunar New Year holidays in a row disrupted by China’s zero-COVID policy, Ann Pei, Mona Zhao, and Wenyi Hai were thrilled to be able to leave Shanghai and return to their families for this year’s festive season.
But amid the excitement, they were also a little apprehensive.
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“I knew that my mum and my grandparents would want to have a talk with me about marriage and children, especially since I’m in my thirties, and I wasn’t looking forward to that,” 31-year-old Ann Pei told Al Jazeera as she was preparing to head home to family near the city of Changchun in northeastern China.
Wenyi Hai, who is 24, knew that a similar conversation was waiting for her when she reached her family in Ji’an in central China.
“Normally, I can just excuse myself and hang up the phone when my parents start going on about husbands and babies, but when I am in their house, it’s not that easy to get away from the topic.”
Parents and older relatives are notorious for asking probing personal questions of young adults during Lunar New Year, especially of young women who are unmarried.
Mona Zhao told her parents that she would only visit them in Qingdao in eastern China for the holidays if they agreed not to mention marriage and children.
“We have talked about that stuff a million times and I am sick of the discussion,” the 25-year-old explained.
“They just can’t accept that it doesn’t make sense for me to start a family.”
Facing population decline
Chinese President Xi Jinping has a vision of “national rejuvenation” for China, but to realise that vision, he needs more women to have children.
In January, China’s National Bureau of Statistics reported the population dropped by 850,000 people in 2022 – the first decline since the last year of the Great Famine in 1961.
The fall comes in the wake of a birth rate that has been steadily declining since the implementation of the one-child policy in 1980. It has continued to fall even though the policy was abolished in 2015, suggesting that 2022’s population drop was not an exception but the start of a trend. The issue is set to be one of the key areas of discussion at the annual meeting of China’s parliament, which begins at the weekend.
The problem for policymakers is that while women like Zhao, Pei and Hai are open to having a family one day, they are wary of marriage and motherhood because of the burdens and disadvantages it places on so many Chinese women.
“I don’t want my life to only be about taking care of kids, doing housework and taking care of my husband’s parents when they get old, but I feel like many families expect that from a married woman in China,” Hai said over a video connection.
Studies do indeed show that Chinese women carry the weight of most domestic tasks — spending about twice as much time on housework as their husbands, for instance.
“Also, it’s usually not enough with your husband’s salary in a family so you need to take care of a job on top of the duties at home,” Hai added, shaking her head in disbelief.
At the same time, the 24-year-old does not want a job that simply fits around the task of bringing up a child. She says she wants a career she can be proud of.
“I have a promotion coming up, and I would be risking it if I start making family plans now,” she explained.
For many women in China, there is no way to maintain a career and start a family.
Even though it is illegal under Chinese law, some Chinese companies continue to make their female employees sign contracts that give the company the right to terminate them if they become pregnant.
In 2019, Fan Huiling from Guangdong Province was fired from her job when she notified her employer that she was pregnant. The same happened to a woman in Jilin Province the previous year.
Women able to reconcile pregnancy with their work life have discovered time off to have a baby can also come with great risks to their careers. Chinese women have reported being sidelined, demoted or replaced by their employers on returning to work from maternity leave.
Women do not even need to be pregnant to encounter discrimination. Sometimes simply being of childbearing age can be a problem, regardless of whether a woman is planning to start a family or not.
“I was looking to change my career a few years back, but, as a woman in her late twenties, I felt that it was very difficult for me to get interviews,” said Pei.
On company websites, social media platforms, and chat groups, many job listings specify that a given position is only appropriate for either a man or a woman who has already had children, even though this sort of gender discrimination is officially prohibited.
“Even when I did get called in for an interview, I was often asked very personal questions about my family plans and at one point also about my fertility,” explained Pei.
The Chinese authorities and local governments have taken steps in recent years to combat such discrimination and come down harder on the companies that force their female employees to sign non-pregnancy contracts.
Fan and the woman from Jilin each sued the companies that fired them for getting pregnant and won.
Fan’s employer was ordered to pay her 13,939 yuan ($2,010) in compensation while the woman in Jilin won her job back — although she later learned that her position had been changed, resulting in her having to work at a construction site in the winter cold.
Xi reiterated in his speech at the 20th National Party Congress last October that getting families to have more children was at the top of his agenda.
“We will improve the population development strategy, establish a policy system to boost birth rates, and bring down the costs of pregnancy and childbirth, childrearing and schooling,” the president said.
Cities like Beijing and Shanghai have taken steps to guarantee better parental leave arrangements and a more equitable distribution of leave between mothers and fathers.
Among the suggestions from politicians gathering in Beijing for the upcoming policymaking sessions are proposals to allow unmarried women the same rights and treatment to have children as those who are married, the adoption of an eight-hour work day and the removal of all medical fees related to childbirth, according to the state-run Global Times.
But for all the talk, some of the central government’s policies appear to be reinforcing the traditional Chinese gender roles that discourage so many women from starting families.
Since Xi came to power in 2012, China has fallen 33 places in the World Economic Forum’s gender gap from 69th to 102nd out of 146 countries.
While the proportion of women board directors did increase from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 13.8 percent in 2021, not a single woman was appointed to the 25-member Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party — the country’s top echelon of power — at October’s congress. It was the first time that has happened in 25 years.
In a speech in 2021, Xi himself said that Chinese women should be “good wives, good mothers”, and that they should shoulder the “mission of their times, closely link their future and destiny with the future and destiny of the motherland”.
A similar view on Chinese women is reflected in an updated gender law that is set to come into force this year and which includes a list of moral standards that women are supposed to observe. The law’s opening chapter says that “women should respect and obey national laws, respect social morals, professional ethics and family values”.
In late 2021, Xi called for artists and writers to “practice morality and decency” and under him Chinese men have also been pushed towards government-approved behaviour.
A month before the president spoke, the media and entertainment industry got a sense of these government values when the authorities released a plan directing them to “boycott vulgar internet celebrities” and put more emphasis on “traditional Chinese culture, revolution culture and socialist culture” in a crackdown on “sissy idols” and “effeminate men”.
“I feel like the government has been limiting the space for what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman,” Zhao said.
“They want us to be a certain way and have families in a certain way, and there is no way for us to do it differently.”
Legacy of the one-child policy
Those that have tried to do things differently have run into obstacles.
When 31-year-old unmarried Teresa Xu wanted to have her eggs frozen at a Beijing hospital, the institution rejected her request arguing that a delayed pregnancy or single motherhood could lead to social problems.
Xu sued the hospital but lost the challenge in July when the Chaoyang District People’s Court ruled that the hospital was not obligated to accommodate Xu’s request since it was not grounded in a medical purpose.
Those women who do have children on their own are excluded from most of the tax breaks, housing credits and educational benefits that the government has doled out in recent years to try and boost the birth rate, as these are reserved for married couples.
Alison Sile Chen used to work for a Chinese magazine that addressed women’s rights in China and is now a PhD student in the political science department at the University of California in San Diego, studying authoritarian surveillance.
According to her, the gulf between the aspirations of so many young Chinese women and the gender roles still placed on them by society is an unintended consequence of the one-child policy.
“China has traditionally been a very patriarchic society, but when families could only have one child, they were forced to channel all their aspirations and resources into that one child even if it was a girl,” she explained.
This has created a new generation of well-educated, career-minded and resourceful young women who have carved out new spaces for themselves in areas that were previously inaccessible to Chinese women. For the economy, the advance of women meant that they were contributing 41 percent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2015 — more than women in North America.
But while women might have moved into new territory in recent decades, the country’s norms and social values have not progressed at the same pace.
“Women’s advancement was prompted by state-imposed changes and not because the social culture changed, so as these women reach childbearing age, they find themselves still subjected to the traditional gender ideology and the established family roles,” Chen said.
According to Ann Pei, it is high time that society catches up.
“If they want more babies, they need to let us start families on our own terms instead of pushing us into an old-fashioned one-size-fits-all model that requires women to abandon careers and dreams,” she said.
“I will not give up my life to start a family.”