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What Do Young Chinese People Think About the End of the One-Child Policy?

They're not as keen to start having loads of kids as you might think.

af Kate Lee
11 november 2015, 1:40pm

People in a Beijing nightclub on the day the end of the one-child policy was announced, not particularly thinking about the one child policy (All photos author's own)

As the doctor at the Central Opera House in the 1980s, Mrs. Lin was in charge of family planning for 400 people. "I wrote monthly reports for the unit leader. All men and women of childbearing age had to register and answer questions about their contraception methods. I would distribute contraceptives provided by the state. Couples had to apply to have a baby, their histories had to be checked."

"Our work unit was easy to manage because people were relatively cultured. The countryside was much more harsh. People weren't knowledgeable about contraception, so they were surgically sterilised. If you broke the rules they'd knock down your house, things like that."

I ask her what she personally thought of the one-child policy at the time.

"As a Chinese citizen you can't have your own opinion! It's a fundamental national policy, it's the law!" She kindly repeats herself for my benefit – I am the foreigner who doesn't quite grasp this simple and obvious fact. "There is no personal opinion, do you understand?"

Thirty-five years after the one-child policy began, and the day its end is announced, I am loitering in the freezing smoking area outside Dada, a central Beijing music venue where US trap producer Lex Luger is playing. A group of young Chinese men in snapbacks and puffer jackets are standing in a circle beat-boxing, rapping in Mandarin and bopping their heads. I loiter around before poking my head in the circle to enquire about their views on the Politburo Standing Committee's recent announcement. Earlier today – the 29th of October – the Chinese heads of government said that all couples would be allowed to have a second child, in a move intended "to balance population development and address the challenge of an ageing population".

MC Tiantian

Tiantian, a Buddhist who was born in the 80s and used to be in the army, tells his friend to find a backing track on his iPhone and responds with a freestyle rap about Chinese society: "China is a 5000 year old civilisation going through high-speed development. It has a lot of problems, but we can resolve them all."

Tiantian welcomes the change. He thinks children born after 1980 have grown up selfish and uncaring. He's looking at the bigger picture. "This is what I think, but if you ask in different cities and different places you'll get different answers."

As I scroll through my friends' social media updates, amid the boasty holiday snaps, selfies and food photos, there are signs of the loss and suffering that the one-child policy caused. One friend in her 20s living in Beijing posted, "Too late... Really want to have siblings :("

Another friend, who grew up in poverty in rural China posted a photo from 2005. It was of Wang Liping, an unmarried 23-year-old who was forced to abort her child when she was seven months pregnant. He wrote, "The unborn child struggled for two hours inside her stomach before dying. It didn't manage to catch a glimpse of this disordered Red nation". He told me, "This policy change won't really affect most young people. Anyway, it is good thing for those in the countryside who want a second child. Too many rural people have been bereaved by the government because of this policy."

Translation: "Give birth to a son soon." As part of a wedding tradition, seeds and nuts spell out a clear message on newlywed Michael's marital bed

I talk on the phone to Michael, who was born in the 1990s in rural Shanxi province. He had got married one day before the announcement, and was pleased with the news. "It will help people fulfill their responsibility to society and to their parents. My baby will be born next year, and I want to have a second." Experts predict that within a decade there will be 20-30 million men with no one to marry. Michael believes the new policy will help solve China's gender imbalance, which peaked at 1.22 to 1 in 2008 thanks to the abortion of unwanted girls – something that being allowed only one child in a patriarchal society clearly didn't help.

I phone Xiao Meili, a 25-year-old women's rights activist, to hear her take on it. "I don't think it will solve the gender imbalance. If people have one son, they'll want another son." Traditionally, a daughter will become part of her husband's family and so parents rely on a son to look after them in their old age and continue the family line.

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Xiao Meili is worried about the implications for gender equality. "Me and many of my girl friends are only children. Our parents use all their resources to make their daughters successful. If there was no one-child policy, I'm sure my parents would have tried for a boy, and I would be treated differently."

For Xiao Meili, this is not a step forward for freedom. It's an attempt to replenish the cheap labour force that has fuelled China's economic growth. "People on the Internet are celebrating, but I don't see it as progress. This is nothing to do with rights, it's about data, treating women like machines. Before it was enforced with no humanity, and now we need more people, instead of a one-child policy it's a two-child policy."

Back in Dada's smoking area, Eyu and Dacca, both born in the 1990s, are unsure why the policy change is big news in the West.

Eyu: "I think it will have no impact. Before today, rich people have been having two kids the whole time. In China, if you are rich, there is no law."

Dacca chimes in: "For us, no matter whether we're allowed to have one kid or five kids, we don't have the means to raise them. One is already enough."

"For us people who can see clearly, this news doesn't have any meaning. It's just some more bullshit... The more I hear the less I believe," adds Eyu. "But we're not your average people, we're skaters."

In 2013, the policy was partially relaxed, allowing couples where one was an only child to have two children. But so far only a small fraction of those who were eligible chose to have a second child. In an increasingly urbanised and competitive society the cost of raising a child is high. Healthcare is not free, and social services are minimal. In this communist nation where posters extolling the values of socialism are everywhere, people must rely on themselves.

Yiyu and her friend on the day of the announcement of the end of the one-child policy

Yiyu, a film student born in 1994, tells me, "In the beginning this policy was important, everyone wanted lots of kids to have a feeling of security. So it was implemented forcefully to help the government achieve its aims. But now things have changed, it's not the policy that controls you, it's financial pressure that means that you can only have one child."

She knows that her parents have worked hard in order to give her a good life, and their expectations are high. "My parents pay so much for me. Even though I think it's unnecessary to go to a fancy expensive kindergarten, if I had a child I'd be the same, I'd spend the money."

So Yiyu doesn't want to have children. She talks about her hopes of travelling, learning languages and studying abroad. "I don't want children to affect my life."

Amartya Sen, Nobel-prize winning economist at Harvard University, attributes China's drop in birthrate to the empowerment of women, who have benefited from China's massive advances in education, healthcare and employment opportunities. He writes that the fertility rate had been declining rapidly a decade before the one-child policy was introduced, and that the decline could be solely due to social influences.

The majority of people I spoke to felt that the policy change would have little impact on their lives. Demographers have commented that it is unlikely to lead to a sudden burst in birthrate, and will make little difference in the long term. Nations all over the world have seen their birthrate slump as they develop. While the reform could change some individual stories, it seems like the one-child policy is deemed largely redundant by many.

The author is writing under a pseudonym.

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