Desperate for Babies, China Races to Undo an Era of Birth Limits. Is It Too Late?

In China, a country that limits most couples to three children, one province is making a bold pitch to try to get its citizens to procreate: have as many babies as you want, even if you are unmarried.

The initiative, which came into effect this month, points to the renewed urgency of China’s efforts to spark a baby boom after its population shrank last year for the first time since a national famine in the 1960s. Other efforts are underway — officials in several cities have urged college students to donate sperm to help spur population growth, and there are plans to expand national insurance coverage for fertility treatments, including I.V.F.

But the measures have been met with a wave of public skepticism, ridicule and debate, highlighting the challenges China faces as it seeks to stave off a shrinking work force that could imperil economic growth.

Many young Chinese adults, who themselves were born during China’s draconian one-child policy, are pushing back on the government’s inducements to have babies in a country that is among the most expensive in the world to raise a child. To them, such incentives do little to address anxieties about supporting their aging parents and managing the rising costs of education, housing and health care.

“The fundamental problem is not that people cannot have children, but that they cannot afford it,” said Lu Yi, a 26-year-old nurse in Sichuan, the province that recently lifted birth limits. She added that she would need to earn at least double her current monthly salary of 8,000 yuan, or about $1,200, to even consider having children.

Many countries around the world — from Japan to Russia to Sweden — have confronted the same demographic challenge, and their attempts to incentivize new babies with subsidies and other tactics have had a limited impact. But China has aged faster than other countries. The often harshly enforced one-child policy, which was aimed at slowing population growth, precipitated the steep decline in births and led to a generational shift in attitudes around family sizes.

Efforts by the ruling Communist Party to raise fertility rates — by permitting all couples to have two children in 2016, then three in 2021 — have struggled to gain traction. The new policy in Sichuan drew widespread attention because it essentially disregards birth limits altogether, showing how the demographic crisis is nudging the party to slowly relinquish its iron grip over the reproductive rights of its citizens.

“The two-child policy failed. The three-child policy failed,” said Yi Fuxian, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has studied Chinese population trends. “This is the natural next step.”

Children playing at a park in Shanghai.Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Sichuan, the country’s fifth-largest province with 84 million people, lifted all limits on the number of children that residents can register with the local government, a process that qualifies parents for paid parental leave and reimbursed hospital bills. In an unusual move, it also included parents who are unmarried. Previously only married couples were allowed to register children (and only up to three).

The new policy touched a nerve in a country where single mothers have long faced discrimination. In online forums, some commenters praised it as a long-overdue step to protect unmarried mothers. Others bemoaned that it would incentivize men to have babies with their mistresses, criticizing the policy for bringing “illegitimate children” out of the shadows.

In most parts of China, single mothers are denied the government benefits offered to married couples. Until recently, some provinces had even imposed fines on unmarried women who gave birth. But the baby shortage has prompted provinces like Sichuan to start legally recognizing children born to single mothers, part of a Communist Party push toward more “inclusive” population policies.

Women’s rights advocates have celebrated this trend as a win for unmarried mothers. Still, Zhang Meng, 47, a single mother in Shanghai, said China has been too slow in expanding the rights of nontraditional families.

Ms. Zhang found out she was pregnant in 2016, soon after breaking up with her boyfriend. She was 40 years old at the time and decided to keep the baby, worried that it might be her only opportunity to have one.

After her son was born, her application for paid maternity leave and medical bill reimbursement — which are provided to married couples — was rejected.

She sued local agencies for the money. Years later, in 2021, she finally received 70,000 yuan, about $10,200, from the government. But the obstacles for women like her go far beyond compensation, she said.

“What many women, especially single mothers, lack is not money, but the protection of their rights and the respect of society,” Ms. Zhang said.

Zhang Meng, 47, a single mother and advocate for unmarried mothers, at a riverside park in Shanghai where she and her son used to play when he was a toddler.Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

Women’s rights advocates have argued that the government’s effort to raise fertility rates risks reinforcing discrimination against women. Already, job listings sometimes explicitly seek only men or women who already have children; when China began allowing couples to have three children, women worried that employers reluctant to pay for maternity leave would be even less willing to hire them.

“Until China fundamentally transforms its social institutions and has more gender equality, women can vote with their wombs,” said Wang Feng, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who specializes in China’s demographics.

Gender inequality looms over the demographic crisis in other ways.

In recent months, as a growing number of cities in China have announced payments for sperm donations, people left comments online joking that men were finally bearing a fraction of the pressure that women have faced to alleviate the country’s fertility decline.

This month, a hospital in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan in southwest China, announced that college students — but only those taller than 5-foot-5 — who donated their sperm could receive 4,500 yuan, or about $660. Sounding like a collective call to action, the announcement concluded with a slogan in pink font: “I donate sperm. I am outstanding. I am proud.”

Along with building up sperm banks, officials are also doing more to expand access to treatments like in vitro fertilization. Yet experts have noted that declining birthrates are related more to economic and cultural shifts than to infertility.

In the aftermath of the country’s Covid-19 lockdowns, nearly one in five Chinese people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed, compounding the disillusionment of a generation in which many see the refusal to have children as an act of political resistance.

In a survey last year of about 20,000 younger Chinese people, mostly from 18 to 25, two-thirds of respondents said they did not want to have children. Demographers cite the costs and pressures of the Chinese educational system as a major concern, recommending policy solutions like shortening schooling by two years and eliminating the competitive exam for entrance to high school.

A child with her mother and grandmother at a mall in Shanghai.Credit…Qilai Shen for The New York Times

For now, many cities in China are trying to address the financial pressures of parenting with direct cash payments.

Last month, Shenzhen, a large city bordering Hong Kong, announced a proposal to provide 7,500 yuan, or about $1,100, to households who have one child — with additional payments for each sibling.

Tracy Chen, 36, a lawyer in Shenzhen who recently got married, said the subsidy would barely cover one month of a live-in nanny.

Ms. Chen said she initially wanted three children because she liked the idea of growing old with a large and lively family.

But seeing her older sister and friends navigate the expense of raising even one child opened her eyes. Many of Ms. Chen’s friends lived in expensive hotels during a postpartum confinement commonly practiced in China, known as “zuo yuezi.” And they paid extra for foreign-made baby formula, still distrustful of domestic brands after a tainted formula scandal in 2008 sickened thousands of babies in China.

Ms. Chen is thinking of trying for one child for now. She said the subsidy was a nice perk but that “it’s not enough to influence whether you will have a child or not.”

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