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The Conundrum of China’s Three-Child Policy
China recently allowed married couples to have three children to counter its aging problem and to tackle a major demographic shift. According to the Xinhua news agency, there would be “supportive measures, which will be conducive to improving our country’s population structure,” but there exists a dark side to this policy that has serious implications for the lives of Chinese women.
In 1979 when China introduced its one-child policy to boost its economy and to raise the living standards of its people, a gender imbalance became significant which would have ramifications for decades to come. According to China’s Health Ministry, there were 336 million abortions performed after the implementation of the one-child policy. When China realized the steep decline in birth rates and a resultant gender imbalance, China allowed couples to have two children. This move came in 2015, but it was shocking to see that only a few couples, roughly 6%, opted for a second child. The Chinese were just not ready to have more than one child. They preferred to spend their earnings on one child instead of two or more.
When the government realized the precipitous decline of its population because of certain policies, they promulgated a propaganda campaign that women should “spend their time in homes,” “care for their family,” and should leave their jobs and stay at home. There was an article published by Xinhua in 2016 which said “the two-child policy would allow more working women to return to their families” In Youth Daily, another state-run news agency, a prominent Chinese academic said, “because mothers have a natural maternal instinct, they are better suited to take good care of children at home.”
However, despite a loosening of restrictions, China is suffering from an aging problem, demographic change, and a gender gap. According to census data, 12 million babies were born in 2020, as compared to 18 million in 2016, the lowest since 1960.
Now let’s look at the consequences of this policy and why women are not welcoming having three children. Firstly, there is a lot of job discrimination at the workplace. Women are still penalized for their maternity choices, they have to face interviews with questions about their marital status, reproductive health, and pregnancies. Women are even fired because of their reproductive choices. They would be considered a liability as they would take maternity leave.
There are laws to curb this discrimination, but women generally don’t opt for it because it’s a tedious and timely process. According to Human Rights Watch, the “gender gap and poor enforcement of anti-discrimination laws” lead to job discrimination. The Global Gender Gap report ranked China 107th out of 156 countries, and if the situation remains the same then its rank will decrease in the coming years. With the economic boom, young Chinese males are avoiding marriages proclaiming they aren’t ready for it. More children would mean a larger impact on rural areas, as they are generally less educated, and face endemic poverty.
With all these prevailing issues, the government wants women to give birth to more than one child without offering any subsidies, tax benefits, mental, social, or healthcare support. Changing certain laws won’t make a difference, but proper implementation of laws that benefit women will.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the government should amend existing laws, increase penalties for discriminatory employees, and prohibit job advertisements from specifying child-bearing status requirements. China needs a culture shift and women deserve basic sexual and reproductive rights. Every woman should have her own choice and China needs to respect them. To deal with its aging workforce, the Chinese government should explore hiking the retirement age rather than focusing on setting up an arbitrary policy.
Ashish Dash is currently a second-year law student pursuing B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) at Institute of Law, Nirma University, Ahmedabad. He is a scholar-writer and a legal researcher. His academic interests particularly lie in Human Rights Law, Public Policy, Criminal Jurisprudence, International Relations, and Minority Rights.