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China's big push for a baby boom

This photo taken on January 5, 2024 shows people posing next to a newly renovated statue of a pair of parents and three children in Hankou Park next to Yangtze River in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. China's population decline accelerated in 2023, official data showed on january 17, 2024, extending a downward streak after more than six decades of growth as the country battles a looming demographic crisis. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on January 5, 2024 shows people posing next to a newly renovated statue of a pair of parents and three children in Hankou Park next to Yangtze River in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. China's population decline accelerated in 2023, official data showed on january 17, 2024, extending a downward streak after more than six decades of growth as the country battles a looming demographic crisis. (Photo by AFP) / China OUT (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chinese government is urging women to have more babies — after decades of a one-child policy.

But officials face major pushback from Chinese women themselves.

Today, On Point: China’s push for a baby boom.


Yangyang Cheng, fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. Frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations.

Leta Hong Fincher, author of “Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.” Research associate at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Yangyang Cheng joins us today. She’s a fellow and a research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. She’s also a frequent columnist on Chinese politics and U.S.-China Relations. Yangyang, welcome back to On Point.

YANGYANG CHENG: Thank you so much for having me. It’s always a pleasure to have you on the show.

CHAKRABARTI: And today I want to talk with you about something we recently learned regarding a statue in Wuhan. So this is not a China hour that has anything to do with COVID. It’s completely different. So this statue in Wuhan, it depicts or depicted some sort of family. Is that right Yangyang?

CHENG: Yes, so this is a sculpture in the shade of green that is next to the Yangtze River. It’s a pretty popular sculpture, and it was initially constructed in 2017. And on the left, it has this circular structure, which in Chinese culture symbols family unity and completeness, and next to it are a few stick figures that symbolizes an ideal family.

And when the sculpture was initially constructed and for the years after, it was three figures, a father, a mother, and a child.

CHAKRABARTI: I’m actually looking at a photograph of the sculpture right now. It’s exactly, as you described, it’s quite beautiful.


CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Except it doesn’t only have three figures on it in this picture.

CHENG: Not anymore. So some weeks ago, at the end of last year, two more figures were added to the sculpture. So now it depicts a five-member family where there were a father, a mother, and three children.

CHAKRABARTI: Indeed, because now the mother is holding the hand of two more children, it looks like possibly a little girl, and then another child with a scooter, looked like a razor scooter.

And this just happened mysteriously overnight.

CHENG: Because it’s a pretty popular tourist spot, and so people noticed it and from social media photos and then compared with some of the earlier photos. So that’s how the change was noticed. And it actually went viral on Chinese social media.

Because actually there is an ironic element to it that the sculpture is named Mei Hao Wei Lai, A Beautiful Future. And we know that for three and a half decades, when the one child policy was initially implemented at the end of 1979, it was exactly in the name of a better future for China. That this severe restriction on birth of families should only have one child was considered a necessity for China’s future, for its path towards modernization.

But then like three and a half decades later, we are living in that future. And of course, it has caused severe issues with regards to the demographics of an aging population, of plummeting birth rate and gender imbalances. And so the Chinese netizens have noticed the irony, including some social media comments, said quote, “Let the sculpture have more kids because we cannot afford to.”

CHAKRABARTI:  I shouldn’t be laughing because this is a very serious issue, but it does, the sort of cheekiness of some of these social media responses in China is admirable. Because one of the comments that I see is, “Who would have time to take a walk with all that to do?” Regarding taking care of the children.

And then, “They should have a few more and line them up along the riverbank.” Okay, now, obviously, so there was this viral moment and quite large response to the addition of two other child figures in this famous Wuhan sculpture. But China lifted or ended its one-child policy. What? In 2015, if memory serves.

So why all of a sudden now, late last year, as you said, did the government just add these two more children. So three children, as a celebration of China’s possible future.

CHENG: Yeah, so this is actually an interesting point because this sculpture was only constructed in 2017. As you just mentioned, the Chinese government lifted the one child policy in 2015, allowing couples to have two children, and that policy was again modified in 2021.

So now the country’s operating under a three-child policy, but on one hand, with three and a half decades of the one child policy as a basic national strategy that is beyond reproach. So it has this strong cultural and social hold in the popular imagination. On the other hand, the government’s more recent push towards having, for couples to have more children has not been effective.

So I think the sculpture is a way of a delayed reaction to this kind of government’s propaganda effort in terms of what an ideal Chinese family should look like.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So this is why we wanted to have you back on On Point today because we had been reading, over the past couple of months, that the Chinese government is trying to more publicly or aggressively push for an increase in the Chinese birth rate, right? For families, particularly women, to consider and definitely have more children. Up to three. Now, just so that we understand, I understand the facts of the situation.

This was an official policy change in 2021, you said.


CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So why now? What has been happening that’s led to very prominent Chinese leaders, including President Xi, to talk about needing to to support and grow a quote-unquote culture of family in China now.

CHENG: So the way I would characterize this is to place a family planning policy in China into a longer and larger history, because there is, I know that one child policy is actually quite well known here in the U.S., but it’s often depicted as something unique to Chinese authoritarianism or to communism.

But this is somewhat a misconception. Actually, during the Republican era in China, and during much of the communist and era of Mao-era China, especially in its early years, the Chinese government had an explicit pro-Natalist policy. That was partly as a moral considerations of a way to police sexuality.

On the other hand, also out of considerations that Mao famously said that more people equals more productive force and even very cross commons, including how a larger population is considered strategic asset in times of war. But then in the mid-1950s because of the rapid population growth. And also resource shortages, as well as women’s inability to fully participate in production if they are having babies all the time.

The Chinese government started implementing family planning policies, but that during the Mao-era was largely uneven and inconsistent.


CHENG: And so the one child policy is very much a product of China under the reform era, as the country was trying to rebuild itself from Mao-era disasters. And it was under a very science and engineer led technocratic form of governance, saying that having, for a family to have only one child, as I mentioned earlier, was on one hand necessary for China’s future.

On the other hand, it was scientific. It was considered progress as a step towards modernity. And when the policy was initially implemented in 1979, at the end of 1971 and 1980, it was very strict that families are only allowed to have one child, one child for all. And it was gradually relaxed in the 1980s, allowing ethnic minorities and some rural households to have up to two children.

CHAKRABARTI: Yes. Can I just slip in here for a second? Because I want you to continue this historical analysis in a moment. But when you said that it was believed, it was seen as, technocratically, as a sign of modernization and national progress to have fewer children, down to one in each family.

Is that because a reduced need for additional workers essentially, was evidence of a nation’s rise in modernity, that they just didn’t need as many people to do labor. Tell me a little bit more about why that was seen as a sign of modernization.

CHENG: Absolutely. This is such a great question. Because at the time, actually, as I mentioned, it was indeed not demographers, but actually Chinese missile scientists, rocket scientists, who played an instrumental role in devising this one child policy. And a lot of them were influenced by these views coming from the west, from Europe as well.

The idea that a large population, or quote-unquote a population explosion or growth is a heavy burden on environment, on the ecosystem, on social and environmental resources. And it was also, there is a very distinct eugenics view. That it was somehow associated with a backwards culture, or it was only underdeveloped regions that people would have more kids.

And these Chinese scientists also felt that they had a very mechanical view of the human body. So they actually literally used the equations to calculate missile trajectories, to predict population growth. And there was also a political push, not in terms of population size per se, but in terms of what type of GDP per capita China should reach by the end of the century.

So there was some backwards calculation, as well, in terms of projected economic growth and then what kind of population that is needed. And these rocket scientists made these very crude, effective very crude calculations. Not taking into account these social, economic, cultural factors in terms of having children and came up with this one child policy.

And then because of the Mao era history, on one hand, the social sciences were effectively decimated. The natural scientists were also faced persecution.


CHENG: But the scientists were working areas related with national defense, was almost this unique group that had access to resources, had political protection and had high levels of social prestige. That they were able to leverage their scientific authority and their political capital too. And that also corresponded with the sentiments of the Chinese leadership at the time, that they needed science instead of communism after Mao-era disasters, as a basis for its new governing legitimacy in the reform era. So it was a confluence of factors that led to the implementation of the one child policy at the beginning of the 1980s.

CHAKRABARTI: You are so brilliant. This is so fascinating, Yangyang. I just again, want to pull out a couple of little things so that people really understand deeply all the incredible things you just said. Because you were talking about natural scientists and physical scientists being the majority of the scientists in China after the cultural Revolution.

Correct? Because there was a very organized campaign by Mao — right — to send a lot of the cultural social scientists to farmland or even a worse fate? Am I right about that? Or no? So you can tell me I’m wrong.

CHENG: I think it’s slightly more nuanced in the sense was like the social sciences were decimated on one hand.

On the other hand, it was seen as very ideological, very politically controlled. On the other hand, the natural scientists, they were also persecuted. But the scientists working in national defense was this unique group that had a level of protection, but then there was also this idea, with this one child policy, because it was portrayed as so mathematical, it had a depoliticized flavor to it, that had mass appeal, as well as political appeal.


CHENG: After the Mao era.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean it’s the Chinese form of techno-utopianism, which we have plenty of that here in the United States, too.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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