Many Chinese are waiting to have children, or opting not to have kids at all in many cases due to the rising cost of education, health care and housing. Many aren’t even getting married. Joe McDonald and Huizhong Wu of the Associated Press wrote: “Young couples who might want to have a child face daunting challenges. Many share crowded apartments with their parents. Child care is expensive and maternity leave short. Most single mothers are excluded from medical insurance and social welfare payments. Some women worry giving birth could hurt their careers. “First, at the interview, if you are married and childless, they may ask, do you have plans to have a kid?” said He Yiwei, who is preparing to return from the United States after obtaining a master’s degree. “And then when you have a kid, you take pregnancy leave, but will you still have this position after you take the leave?” said He. “Relative to men, when it comes to work, women have to sacrifice more.” [Source: Joe McDonald and Huizhong Wu, Associated Press, May 11, 2021]

Kevin Yao and Ryan Woo of Reuters wrote: "Urban couples, particularly those born after 1990, value their independence and careers more than raising a family despite parental pressure to have children. Surging living costs in China's big cities, a huge source of babies due to their large populations, have also deterred couples from having children. According to a 2005 report by a state think-tank, it cost 490,000 yuan ($74,838) for an ordinary family in China to raise a kid. By 2020, local media reported that the cost had risen to as high as 1.99 million yuan — four times the 2005 number. "Having a kid is a devastating blow to career development for women at my age," said Annie Zhang, a 26 year-old insurance professional in Shanghai who got married in April last year. "Secondly, the cost of raising a kid is outrageous (in Shanghai)," she said, in comments made before the 2020 census was published. "You bid goodbye to freedom immediately after giving birth." [Source: Kevin Yao and Ryan Woo, Reuters, May 11, 2021]

Anthony Fensom wrote in the National Interest: Some "blame faltering traditional concepts of marriage and parenthood.” Marriage registrations have dropped each year since 2013. Meanwhile, divorces are also increasing. “Young people’s ideas of family and giving birth are changing, and traditional values such as sustaining family lineages through giving birth have been weakening,” Nankai University’s Yuan Xin told China Daily. [Source: Anthony Fensom, National Interest, September 16, 2019]

Jane Li wrote in Quartz: The falling birth rate has unleashed a debate on Chinese social media, where people are complaining about the country’s rising housing prices, stalling economy, and increasing education costs as the main reasons for not wanting to have children. “It is not to do with whether the government has policies to encourage people to have babies, it is about whether the current social environment is good enough for them to do so,” a user commented under the news on China’s Twitter-like Weibo. Indeed, amid the ever-higher pressures to raise a family, many Chinese youngsters have chosen to quit the game. The country’s marriage rate plunged to 6.6 per 1,000 people in 2019, the lowest level in 14 years. Many women have initiated campaigns on social media to encourage youngsters not to get married, as a way to show their discontent against the country’s discriminatory policies against women in the job market and higher education. [Source: Jane Li, Quartz, February 9, 2021]

“Meanwhile, the one-child policy that was in force for over three decades is still hindering the public’s willingness to have children, according to Liang of “The one-child policy consumed a huge amount of resources and funding, worsened the relationship between government employees [that executed the policy] and citizens,” he wrote. “Even though families are now allowed to have a second baby, it is difficult to change people’s notion of seeing one child as the norm…with the rising costs for raising children, the birth rate in China will continue to decline, and it will eventually become the country with the lowest birth rate globally.”

Chinese Women who Don’t Want Kids

Waiyee Yip of the BBC wrote: “Despite being hassled by her mum about it, Beijing resident Lili is not planning to have children any time soon. The 31-year-old, who has been married for two years, wants to “live my life” without the “constant worries” of raising a child. “I have very few peers who have children, and if they do, they’re obsessed about getting the best nanny or enrolling the kids in the best schools. It sounds exhausting.”[Source: Waiyee Yip, BBC News, May 24, 2021]

Dr Mu Zheng, from the National University of Singapore’s sociology department, said that the notion of what makes a person successful has changed in China — at least for those living in big cities. No longer is it defined by traditional markers in life such as getting married and having children — instead, it’s about personal growth.

“Still, women in particular are still expected to be the primary caregiver due to gender norms. While China does in theory have 14 days of paternity leave, it is uncommon for men to take it — and even rarer for them to be full-time fathers. Such fears may lead to women not wanting to have kids if they feel that it could dampen their career prospects, Dr Mu said.

“On Chinese social media, the issue is a hot topic, with the hashtag “why this generation of young people are unwilling to have babies” being read more than 440 million times on microblogging platform Weibo. “The reality is that there aren’t many good jobs out there for women, and the women who do have good jobs will want to do whatever it takes to keep them. Who would dare have kids in this situation?” one person asked.

“While some cities have extended maternity leave benefits in recent years, giving women the option to apply for leave beyond the standard 98 days, people say it has only contributed to workplace gender discrimination. In March 2020, a female job applicant in Chongqing was forced by a potential employer to guarantee that she would quit her job as soon as she got pregnant.

“But some experts point out the need to tread carefully, calling out the huge disparity between city dwellers and rural people. As much as women living in expensive cities such as Beijing and Shanghai may wish to delay or avoid childbirth, those in the countryside are likely to still follow tradition and want large families, they say. “If we free up policy, people in the countryside could be more willing to give birth than those in the cities, and there could be other problems,” a policy insider told Reuters, noting that it could lead to poverty and employment pressures among rural families.

“It seems there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but demography expert Dr Jiang Quanbao from Xi’an Jiaotong University is optimistic that it is still possible for China to reverse its population woes. While fertility rates are sliding, the rate is “still elastic” because it remains the societal norm for the Chinese to get married and have children, he said. Provided that there are more measures to support families in childcare and education, for example, there is hope for change: “It is not too late.” “Even Lili may be convinced to change her mind. “If it becomes less competitive for kids to get the resources they need, I might feel more mentally ready and less stressed about having a child. My mother would be so happy to hear this,” she said.

Chinese Parents Who Don’t Want More Children

Simon Denyer and Congcong Zhang wrote in the Washington Post: “Han Jing’s son started taking after-school classes when he was just 5 years old: extra English, math and drawing so he wouldn’t fall behind the other children at kindergarten. “I didn’t want him to feel ashamed or have low self-esteem on his first day of elementary school,” she said, worried that he’d face other children who spoke English, knew thousands of Chinese characters or could play the piano. Three years later, the pressure has only mounted: She and her husband spend more than $10,000 a year on after-school classes. It’s a huge drain on their time, and an even bigger one on their resources, given that her husband earns less than $35,000 a year. [Source: Simon Denyer and Congcong Zhang, Washington Post October 16, 2016

“Their apartment is too small for a second child, and the cost of moving to a bigger one in Beijing has risen out of their reach. But it is not just money that is preventing them from having a second one: Han says they have also devoted all of their time and energy into their son, and they are simply exhausted. “Seeing how much pressure my kid is under makes us feel bad, too, so I don’t want another kid of mine to go through this,” she said. “He’s so tired. We’re too tired. Whether it’s us or the child, I don’t think of any of us can handle another one.”

“Provinces all across China have offered women longer maternity leave, often adding several months to the old standard 98 days. In villages, new slogans are being dreamed up by party committees and draped across buildings and walls. “Train your body, build up strength, get ready for the second baby!” one slogan said, according to reports in an online forum. “Get to sleep early, stop playing cards, work hard to produce a child!” exhorted another. “No fines, no arrests. Go ahead and have a second child if you want one!”

“The problem is that many people don’t want a second child any more. Having only one has become ingrained in Chinese culture and society, and people no longer believe the party should be telling them what to do in the bedroom. So when officials in the city of Yichang in Hubei province issued a public letter in September exhorting party members to “respond to the party’s call” and “fully implement the two-child policy,” there was outrage online. “You can’t just make people have kids when you want them to, or stop when you tell them, we are humans not pigs!” one person posted. Even the state-owned Global Times newspaper called the recommendations “ridiculous and illegal,” and the public letter has since disappeared from the website of the city’s health and family planning commission.

“But Xi Wei, father of a 9-year-old boy, said that he and his wife won’t be trying for another child. Their son does extra classes after school and all day on Saturday, and parents and child all feel exhausted by the social pressure for him not to “fall behind.” As only children themselves, Xi and his wife also don’t think there is anything wrong with growing up alone. “After all these years, everybody is inclined to just have one child. Everybody’s used to it,” he said. “How can you have a second child when the whole society has hostile and incompatible resources towards it?”

Helen Gao wrote in the New York Times: “““Raising two children in Beijing would definitely cost me my job,” a friend who works in marketing at Google in Beijing confessed to me, explaining why she would not take advantage of the end of the one-child policy. Also daunting is the widespread pregnancy discrimination in the workplace. “A woman used to have an easy time finding a job after she had given birth once,” said a classmate at my high school reunion. “Now employers have reasons to worry twice.” It’s not only children putting caregiving demands on urban Chinese women. Elderly populations in Chinese megacities have soared — for example, in Shanghai nearly 30 percent of the 14 million residents are older than 60, an increase of over 5 percent from a year ago — straining the country’s rudimentary system for caring for the urban elderly. Seeking to shift some of the burden to families, the government passed a law in 2013 requiring adult children to visit their parents regularly. But the decree merely reflected what was already taking place. Married couples care for their elderly parents in most urban families, studies show, with the bulk of the responsibilities falling on women. Wives are often expected to care for their own parents as well as their husbands’ [Source: Helen Gao, New York Times, October 13, 2016].

Single Mothers in China

There are no official statistics on the number of single-parent households in China, but a National Health Commission survey in 2014 estimated that there would be nearly 20 million single mothers by 2020. Many of them come from divorce, with divorce rates in the country nearly doubling from 2009 to 2018, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. [Source:Huizhong Wu, Associated Press, March 15, 2021]

Around 20 per cent of the population remains single, according to state media. There are nearly 200 million single adults in China, accounting for 14.6 percent of the total population, according to 2018 Chinese government statistics. Around 17 per cent of Chinese adults live alone, compared to 42 per cent in the United States. By one estimate there are 92 million young adults in China that are not married and have no intention of being so and there are over 40 million empty-nest youths. The Chinese government doesn’t like these numbers and and is trying to change them.

Single Chinese Mothers Denied Maternity Benefits

Chinese women who raise children as single mothers face many challenges. The vast majority are unable to access public benefits, ranging from paid maternity leave to prenatal exam coverage, because their status is in a legal gray zone. Some may even face fines. While the Chinese the government is eager to promote higher birthrates, relaxing restrictive family planning laws in 2015 allowing families can have two kids, the laws regarding single parents have not kept pace. [Source: Huizhong Wu, , Associated Press, March 15, 2021]

Huizhong Wu of Associated Press wrote: Sarah Gao had a busy job. As the head of a 500 million yuan ($76.8 million) investment fund, she was constantly flying across China on business trips. Then she found out she was pregnant. Her pregnancy, with her then-boyfriend, was unplanned. But Gao, who was 40, thought she wouldn't have any more chances, and decided to keep the baby. [Source: Huizhong Wu, , Associated Press, March 15, 2021]

“Following a difficult pregnancy, Gao gave birth to her daughter in November 2016. She went back to work after seven months of sick leave and maternity leave. Throughout her sick leave, her company, KunYuan Asset Management, paid her the bare minimum: roughly 1,000 yuan ($153) a month, a huge drop from her usual monthly salary of 30,000 yuan ($4,606). The company did not pay her during maternity leave.

“In Beijing, where Gao lives, an employee can apply for those public benefits only through their company. But Gao’s company refused to apply for her, saying her materials were incomplete because she lacked a marriage license. China’s family planning policy does not explicitly forbid unmarried women to have children, but says that “the state encourages a husband and wife to have two children.” At the local level, this has been interpreted to mean that only a married couple can have children. This becomes an obstacle when trying to access benefits, such as reimbursement for prenatal visits and salary during pregnancy leave. Many local governments require a marriage permit during this process, said Dong Xiaoying, the founder of Advocates for Diverse Family Network.

Single Chinese Mothers Demand Maternity Laws

Sarah Gao’s decision to keep the baby led to a nearly four-year legal battle for her maternity benefits. She and some other single mothers are part of a small group, organized by Advocates for Diverse Family Network, that petitioned the Legal Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress to allow single mothers to have maternity rights and benefits. [Source:Huizhong Wu, Associated Press, March 15, 2021]

Huizhong Wu, Associated Press“Gao pressed the company for full salary and maternity leave benefits, part of which would come from the social insurance to which companies contribute by law. When she forced the issue, the company asked her to resign. Gao refused to quit at first, but eventually she was fired. However, the company refused to issue her a formal letter that would acknowledge her departure, making it difficult for her to find a new job.

“Gao is suing the company for 1 million yuan ($153,645) in back pay, in addition to her maternity leave payment. She has lost twice in court since July 2017 and is appealing for a third time. Each time, the court said that “Gao's unmarried status while giving birth is not in line with national policy, and therefore lacked the legal basis for her to receive a salary during maternity leave.”

“There have been some changes. In Guangdong province and Shanghai, governments have changed regulations so that a woman does not have to provide proof of marriage before getting benefits. In January 2021, Shanghai quietly implemented a new regulation that removed the need for a marriage permit to apply for benefits, helping women like Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother turned activist in Shanghai. Zou sued a Shanghai government agency in 2017 to get her maternity leave salary and the public insurance benefits. After years of media interviews, court appearances and lobbying city politicians, Zou received her benefits earlier this month.

“The laws must change, Zou believes, as the cultural stigma is still very intense. Only recently did she find out that the mother of her son’s playmate was also a single mother. They had known each other for five months before the woman revealed that detail. “Its direct impact is that there are some single moms already facing great difficulties who fall into more difficult positions,” Zou said. “The indirect impact is that some people are afraid to speak up, and some are afraid to face society and will face a lot of suppression. People who don’t want to marry end up getting married and enter into an unhappy marriage.”

“Single moms and activists are hoping that a change on the national level can smooth out the situation for single mothers in the rest of the country, like Gao. A Guangdong delegate to the National People's Congress said in February that the family planning law may need some clarifications to address the needs of single mothers, acknowledging their legal quandary. “I just want to know in the national policy, as a single parent, as an unmarried woman, do I have the right to give birth?” Gao said.

Married Without Children in China and the Pressure That Goes with It

Jocelyn Eikenburg wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time: “When I stepped into our muggy kitchen the other night to start dinner, I never guessed my husband, Jun, a native of the Hangzhou, China, region where we live, would turn up the unbearable summer heat with one simple statement. “The other day, my aunt asked me when we’re going to have a baby.” Suddenly, I felt my blood pressure rising like steam from the sizzling wok before me. “Why are you telling me this?” I snapped back. “I just want to prepare you, so you’ll have a thicker skin. My relatives are all waiting for us to have a child.” I let out an exasperated sigh. “As if I needed another reminder.” [Source: Jocelyn Eikenburg, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal. July 21, 2015]

“In China, “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” can be the equivalent of asking, “How are you?” An American who met my husband while working at an Internet company in China, I never cared what his family said about us when we lived in the U.S. “The hardest part is constantly feeling misunderstood. My husband and I have perfectly good reasons — personal ones — for not having children. But unless we’re around close friends, we don’t bother explaining. In China, where pregnancy and birth is a must for every married couple, there’s not much room for explanation.

“My mother-in-law has told me I am getting “too old,” hoping to scare me into baby-making ASAP. My husband’s godfather has grumbled to us about his advanced age and how he might soon pass away — his morbid way of nudging us into parenthood. My husband’s second-oldest brother raised his glass during Chinese New Year and, while staring at me, declared his hope that “a new person” would join our dinner table the following year. But the most blatant pronouncement came from one of Jun’s uncles during a holiday lunch: “Now that you’re back in China, you should remember to have children soon. Your in-laws are getting older, and they want to see your child.” I lost my appetite after that, abruptly leaving the table with the excuse that I was full.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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