China Fears a Baby Bust

Times Staff Writer

Zhang Xiaofeng, a 28-year-old who runs a steel business here, doesn’t need anyone to tell him about the joys of fatherhood. He eagerly pulls out his wallet and displays pictures of his 2-year-old son, Chengqi, with his mother’s big, round eyes.

Zhang often passes up nights out with his buddies so he can race home to play with Chengqi.

“I bathed him, fed him and changed his diapers. I did all those things,” he says proudly.


But ask Zhang whether he and his wife want another child, and his jaw tightens. Raising another child would be tiring, time-consuming and expensive, Zhang protests.

He sums it up: “One is enough.”

For the last quarter-century, China’s one-child decree has been criticized by citizens and outsiders alike as draconian. But as the nation takes steps to ease its policy, with some cities encouraging certain families to have a second child, people like Zhang illustrate how difficult it will be for the government to root out ingrained attitudes.

Having only one child is now widely accepted, especially among urban residents. In Shanghai, China’s largest city, a recent government survey of about 20,000 young people found that more than 80% preferred to have just one child. Another 5% said they wanted no children at all.

The findings worried officials all the more because this metropolis of 17 million was already grappling with plummeting births. Last year, about 57,000 babies were born in Shanghai, but there were nearly twice as many deaths. Such a large gap has profound implications for the future workforce and for an aging society. At the current rate, the city would face labor shortages, even with its sizable inflow of migrants.

Shanghai, with its affluence, fast-paced lifestyle and gleaming skyscrapers, isn’t a typical Chinese city. But researchers believe that its demographic quandary typifies what other areas in China will confront in coming years: a society with too few children.

Shanghai Eases Policy

Keenly aware of that, Shanghai’s Population and Family Planning Commission reformed parts of the one-child law last spring, making it easier for people such as remarried couples to have more children. Zhang and his wife can have a second child because they come from one-child households.

Shanghai officials added 11 exemptions to the one-child policy, including removing the waiting period for certain families. Also, in the fall the city scrapped a financial reward that had long been given to childless couples.

So far, the changes in Shanghai have spurred only about 100 more people a month to seek government permission for a second child. The commission’s director said her office was prepared to handle 10 times that number.

“It’s a big problem,” said Zhang Henian, associate professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank. Rapid economic growth and the rise of urban society are major factors underlying Shanghai’s low fertility rate, but Zhang said it’s hard to reverse 25 years of heavy promotion of the idea that one child is best.

“In the past, the goodness of the one-child policy was overly stressed,” he said.

Shanghai’s prevailing attitude toward childbirth isn’t representative of all of China. Couples living in some rural areas have long been allowed to have two or more children, and many continue to prefer larger families.

In the mountainous southern province of Yunnan, there were 17 births per 1,000 residents last year -- compared with four for Shanghai, five for Beijing and 12 for the country as a whole. (The U.S. birthrate was about 14 per 1,000 residents.) To bring Yunnan’s birthrate more in line with the nation’s, the government is rewarding some families that stick to one child with a pension and cash for school tuition.

At the same time, other regions of China are experimenting with ways to encourage childbearing. Beijing’s municipal government recently drafted new regulations that would increase time off and improve insurance policies for older women taking maternity leave. In east China’s Zhejiang province, one city sharply lowered penalties for those who break the one-child rule, which are typically several times a family’s annual income.

Such geographical disparities make it difficult for the central government to formulate a new national birth-control policy. At this point, Beijing hasn’t spelled out what local jurisdictions can do, but it’s understood they can’t stray too far from the existing national policy.

Officials say the one-child law has reduced births by about 300 million and lifted living standards. China, with 1.3 billion people, remains the world’s most populous country.

But the policy has been condemned for leading to female infanticide and forced sterilization, and it has produced a troubling gap in the number of boys and girls. Male heirs are considered desirable. Enforcement of the law has been uneven and often cruel. Last month, a couple in Jiangxi province complained that local officials destroyed their home after they were unable to pay a fine of 16,000 yuan (about $1,935) because their daughter broke the one-child policy.

Seeking a New Rule

Today, scholars say, there is agreement among academics and leaders of the Communist Party that the one-child rule is no longer good for China.

Two years ago, Beijing took an important symbolic step in softening the harsh language of the law, saying that those having unauthorized babies would no longer pay “fines” but a “social compensation fee.” More recently, discussions of overhauling the family-planning policy have grown more intense, fueling speculation that the government will adopt something akin to a two-child law.

But no one knows when the one-child rule will be discarded. Most experts think it’s several years away, and even then there would be no guarantee that a change would make a difference in places where the effects of the law are most problematic.

“Whether a new policy could be implemented is another issue,” said Peng Xizhe, a Fudan University professor who is among about 300 scholars advising the Chinese government on population planning.

“A low family fertility rate is very difficult to raise,” he said. “Even when you ask young people to have one child, they will refuse. That’s a big change in social pattern.”

Even many older Chinese who grew up with multiple siblings and had several children are convinced that one is enough.

Steven Liang’s mother feels that way. That means when the 30-year-old engineer gets married, she won’t be pressuring him and his wife to give her more than one grandchild.

“Because the one-child policy has been around for so long, we’re all used to it,” said the 63-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used. “In my generation, two or three was a good number,” she said. As she spoke in the lounge of a Shanghai theater, Liang sat beside her and nodded. “Nowadays, one child is good.”

But for people like Jessica Zhang, even one is too many.

A 30-year-old editorial director of a Shanghai fashion magazine, Zhang said she and her husband had decided not to have a baby. Their reasons: They can remain the center of their home, focus on their careers and enjoy more free time. They don’t have to deal with the rising cost of educating a child, and they can decorate their home as they wish.

“Of course I may feel lonely when I’m old and be envious of people with children,” Zhang said. “But I will have earned much more happiness when I was young.”

She also takes issue with those who believe that having kids will provide financial security. “It’s a stupid idea that children will take care of you,” she said.

But who will? That’s a question many are asking nowadays in China. With improved healthcare and living standards, the elderly population has grown sharply in such places as Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces and the city of Tianjin.

In Shanghai, 2.6 million seniors make up about 16% of the city’s population, which far outstrips the worldwide average of 7%. Their swelling ranks are straining the city’s pension and social service systems. At the end of last year, there were only about 450 senior nursing facilities in Shanghai, with enough beds for just 37,000 people. Although a higher birthrate won’t solve this problem, more young people entering the labor force would generate taxes to help pay for health and social services.

Shanghai officials downplay the severity of the population imbalance, saying the city’s troubles will be cushioned by its 3 million migrants. But surveys show that group, many of them young workers from hardscrabble rural areas, isn’t more inclined to have children than Shanghai’s registered residents.

In any case, it is unlikely that Shanghai will see many more couples producing more than one child.

That worries Zhang Qi, an assistant headmistress of a middle school in the city. She observes the students in her school -- almost all from one-child families -- and fears for the future.

“Every student thinks she’s in the middle of the circle. They consider little of others,” Zhang said. “I think it’s a great harm to our nation.”

Zhang, 43, has only one child, a daughter in her teens. She grew up with five brothers and sisters and yearns for another child. But she doesn’t qualify for any of the exemptions to the one-child policy. She was willing to pay the social compensation fee but decided against it because she would feel immense pressure to give up her government job, as lawbreakers typically do.

“The condition in China seems to be improving to have another child, but I think it’s impossible for me now,” Zhang said, noting that violators of the one-child law are still scorned by co-workers.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Guo Xiaoli sat beside her 7-year-old daughter, Jiayi, at a McDonald’s restaurant in Shanghai’s fashionable Huaihai Road shopping district.

Jiayi was among a handful of children at the two-story restaurant, which was jammed with customers.

Guo, 33, comes from the southern province of Guangdong, where people tend to have larger families. But her husband is a native of Shanghai, and he’s dead set against that. Part of it is social pressure, she said.

“My husband’s mother keeps saying, ‘One is enough,’ because everybody around us has just one.”

As time has passed, Guo has come to agree with her husband. Child-rearing is costly, exhausting and frequently annoying, she said.

Sometimes, Jiayi pleads with her mom for a sibling to play with. For such occasions, Guo said she has a ready answer: “If you have a little sister, I will like her, not you.”