Science

China allows a third child per family. But what realities are behind this announcement?

Sciences et Avenir: On May 28, 2021, President Xi Jinping’s government declared that it will now allow Chinese couples to have three children. How to explain the reasons for such an easing after 42 years of demographic control?

Manon Laurent: Recent publication the last Chinese population census showed a notable decrease. China’s population growth over the past decade has been the slowest since the 1950s, and the fertility rate of 1.3 newborns per woman is well below the replacement rate of 2.1. However, the question of children in China is first and foremost economic: how to increase the working population to maintain a social system and an economic model which is based on solidarity between generations, while the population is aging?

“Engineer Song Jian is the originator of the one-child policy”

The one-child policy put in place in 1979 was also never intended to last indefinitely. As a reminder, it’s a man named Song Jian who is at the origin of this policy. Ballistics engineer, – the military sector then being the only one to benefit from research funding after Mao’s death in 1976 – this statistician had established several graphs of Chinese population growth according to the number of children per family. He calculated that only one child per woman would lead to a decrease in the population in 2020. At the time, these questions were essentially economic in order to know how to get the population out of poverty and allow the economic development of the country. country. Reducing the size of the population was one of the solutions.

Has the one-child policy been more flexible than one might think?

Absolutely. A certain relaxation was noticeable barely 5 years after the introduction of the one-child policy. Thus, from 1984, rural families could have two children, especially if the first was a girl. The idea being that a boy was always needed to keep the family line and take care of the fields. Likewise, two parents who were themselves only children could have two children. Then, from 2013, it only took one parent for the couple to be allowed to have two children. This measure was extended to all Chinese families in 2016. This birth rate policy was therefore not as rigid as it seemed. On the other hand, this expression of “one-child policy” is a Western translation. In China, we speak of “family planning” (jihua shengyu). The birth rate policy has in fact changed every ten or fifteen years, henceforth with the possibility for everyone to have three children.

“The so-called one-child policy only concerned one Chinese ethnicity”

It is striking to note that some Chinese families did not wait for this measure to have more two children. How to explain it?

This is another lesser known feature. The so-called one-child policy in the West has never concerned all of the 56 ethnic minorities that make up China. Population control has always been applied to Han (the majority Chinese ethnicity, editor’s note), other groups benefiting from specific policies and rights: for example by having specific schools with instruction in their own languages; or positive discrimination to gain access to administrations, etc. It is undeniable that in the years 1980-1990 there was a real desire to give minorities access to the bureaucracy in these regions. And the freedom to have more children among minorities fell within that framework. Today, these provisions, however enshrined in the Constitution, seem to contradict the repressive policy implemented in Tibet or Xinjiang. Since 2013 and the coming to power of Xi Jinping there has been a turnaround on these issues.


Three children photographed in extracurricular activities at Li Xiaoshuang Gymnastics School in Xiantao, Hubei Province.

“The 3 concepts against which the Chinese state fights: separatism, terrorism and extremism”

The Chinese government has let it be known that having 3 children would “maintain national security and Chinese stability”

These themes appear regularly in the speeches we hear about Hong Kong or Xinjiang. It should be borne in mind that these questions refer to three concepts against which the Chinese state is fighting: separatism, terrorism and extremism. Questions of national security and stability are closely linked to these themes. It is also clear that from the point of view of the Chinese government, the issue of national security and Chinese unity mainly concerns the Han. Which is quite contradictory with the official texts of integration of minorities in a multi-ethnic nation.

What did your work in China on education and kinship allow you to understand about this notion of demographic control?

In reality, the Chinese state does not only seek to control the number of children, it also seeks to control families. That is to say to influence the parents as regards the education of their children. Since the fall of 2020, the National People’s Congress has been discussing a law related to family education. There are very specific requirements on what parents should pass on to their children. In particular, respect for Chinese unity and those of socialist and nationalist values. The protection of the unity of the territory appears there explicitly.

The competition for the “family of the Five Virtues”

How can this control pass over families?

I would say that the Chinese government uses three tools: that of a competition, with the organization of a competition for the “family of the Five Virtues”, which has been organized at the local and national level since the 1950s. This competition allows to stage exemplary families whose history shows their altruism, their love for the nation and the party: the father and the mother are for example police officers who sacrifice themselves for the country. These stories are then broadcast in newspapers and on television during a program called “The most beautiful family”. The other tool involves the ministry of education. Article 30 of the law specifies that nursery and primary schools must set up “schools for parents”, where the latter are obliged to attend evening classes to learn how to educate their children. It should be understood that this is not a simple question of indoctrination but rather a means of defining good practices to take good care of your children. Parents often attend for fear that their absence will penalize their children because these attendance are marked. And the themes addressed in these meetings range from the psycho-cognitive development of the child, to their protection through the teaching of socialist and nationalist values. The third mechanism involves the direct intervention of the State in the event of suspicion of neglect or mistreatment on the part of parents towards their children. This is the case in many countries. I will also specify that the Chinese urban middle class, – approximately 700 million people – the one who devotes a large part of its budget to the education of children (choice of good schools, private lessons, etc.), does not feel too affected by these directives which she considers more intended for the rural world.


Manon Laurent. ML Credit

Do you think Chinese families are now ready to welcome more children?

Having children in China today is too expensive for families, which is why most of them do not intend to have a third child. Regarding the middle class, calculations have been made to estimate the cost of educating a child aged 0 to 22, which amounts to 80,000 to 250,000 euros. (In France, in November 2018, the review Capital had set this value at 180,000 euros). Having two children is, moreover, in China an indicator of belonging to a social category which has sufficient income to “push” its children into school competition. As for the upper middle classes, those of Shanghai or Beijing, capable of having large budgets dedicated to education, they send their children to study abroad.

“There is a lot of discrimination in hiring against women of childbearing age”

Should the Chinese government therefore find incentives to convince families?

This measure will have little impact as long as the Chinese government does not specify the accompanying measures it has announced, these measures could be financial aid, but also a public investment in the care of children from the start. birth. If the Chinese education system is 80% public for primary school and college (which are compulsory), kindergartens are on the other hand mostly private, therefore paying. In addition, parents devote large sums to ensuring their child’s competitiveness in relation to their classmates (evening classes, extra-curricular activities). This represents a very high cost for families. In addition, nurseries hardly exist and women are faced with obstacles in the implementation of maternity leave and the protection of their career development.

What do you mean ?

There is a lot of discrimination in hiring against women of childbearing age. Employers thus avoid hiring them if they are between 20 and 35 years old, fearing that they will have to pay maternity leave … For their part, women fear that they will not find their jobs if they assert these rights. This explains the two main reactions relayed in the Chinese press following the government announcement authorizing the third child: first the financial cost that this would represent, but also the impact that this measure could have on the careers of the children. women, who don’t want to be sacrificed. China was a few decades ago one of the countries with the highest rate of participation of women in the labor market (80% in the 1980s). However, this rate has constantly decreased since the 1990s to the point that today only 60% of women participate in the labor market! The proposal of 3e child does not reassure them, and even awakens real anxiety among Chinese women.

What is the most important thing for you to take away from this announcement?

China faces a demographic problem, with an aging population and too few births. But, while international immigration is positively seen as a solution (under certain conditions) in many countries, in China the government wants Chinese births, from young educated and married women. Because if the government wants births it does not want just any. The LGBT community, for example, has no right to marriage or reproduction; unmarried women, who also do not have the right to reproduction, cannot freeze their oocytes, claim in vitro fertilization (IVF), or even adopt. In China, the child is recognized only in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. On the other hand, children born out of wedlock are not socially accepted and they have many difficulties in benefiting from public services. To be enrolled in school, a legal registration is required, which is only accessible to married parents. As for the naturalization of international immigrants, this question is absolutely not considered as a solution to the demographic problem in China. You are born Chinese, but you cannot become Chinese: there is no recognition of dual nationality, nor land rights. In a country where more and more inhabitants decide not to have children, it is unlikely that the measure announced by the government will be followed by significant effects.

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