An expert's point of view on a current event.

With Three-Child Policy, China Is Missing the Point

To really boost birthrates, Beijing needs to focus on gender parity and cost of living.

By , the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review.
A woman holding a baby and leaflets visits a real estate fair in Chengdu, China, on April 21, 2005.
A woman holding a baby and leaflets visits a real estate fair in Chengdu, China, on April 21, 2005. China Photos/Getty Images

According to a worrying set of census results released in mid-May, in recent years China has experienced a substantial drop in birthrates. The results fueled brewing angst among those who have warned that China could follow the so-called Japan trajectory (Japan’s population shank over the past decade after peaking at 128 million in 2010) and suffer a labor deficit as birthrates tank.

China has long been worried about population trends. In 2016, it scrapped its decades-long “one-child policy” in part in an effort to encourage larger families. But that move alone was apparently insufficient to stall the precipitous decline. And so, this week, the Chinese Communist Party—after a Politburo meeting—declared that married couples would be permitted to have up to three children. And thus was introduced China’s “three-child policy,” although the precise details and dates of implementation remain unclear.

In many ways, Beijing’s swift response to the census data and wider demographic trends accurately encapsulates how policymaking operates at the highest echelons of the country. On most domestic affairs of significance, the party feels the pulse of the people through a mixture of local officials relaying information collated from online forums and offline consultation and input from leading think tanks and academic advisors.

Many among the latter group have consistently signaled China’s need to revisit its population policies. Huang Wenzheng, a population studies expert at the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, has warned of an imminent population decline in 2021 or 2022 and of the prospective dangers of the ongoing “massive drop in births.” It makes sense, then, that faced with such analysis and then with the hard facts of the census, Beijing felt the need to act.

Yet despite the party’s response, many Chinese remain skeptical of the three-child policy. Three dominant criticisms have emerged.

First, the policy neglects the fundamental causes as to why Chinese citizens—specifically the burgeoning middle class and well-to-do families—are wary of having children. As the demographer He Yafu noted to the New York Times, “Many people don’t want to have a second child, let alone a third child.” The lifting of restrictions alone does very little to tackle the structural barriers to decent life prospects for future generations, the primary deterrent to having kids, along with the burdens of child care, education, and so on for aspiring parents.

As one netizen lamented, “I’d rather search for three husbands than have three children. It’s too expensive!” Indeed, skyrocketing living costs, housing prices, and education expenses— especially in crowded cities—are rendering child rearing increasingly unaffordable to a vast majority of the Chinese population. Per a March survey of 1,938 millennials by China Youth Daily’s Social Survey Center, 67.3 percent of young people cited the inability to find domestic help as the primary reason for which they were unwilling to have a second child.

Chinese cities are also increasingly subject to secondary issues typically associated with urban sprawl and overpopulation, including congestion, environmental pollution, and infrastructural overload. Even in the rural areas, where labor-intensive industries are gradually being replaced by manufacturing and the like, having three (or more) children is no longer an advantage.

As it stands, the proposed three-child policy lacks any substantive positive incentive or mechanism to spur larger families, such as the aggressive measures introduced by Singapore to stimulate birthrates, through child relief and medical subsidies, the prioritization of families with more than two children in public housing queues, and granting of tax rebates to young mothers. If Beijing is serious about fixing its demographic crisis, it must offer more to its citizens who decide to undertake the so-called noble task of having more than two children.

Secondly, the proposed changes, once again, pay little heed to the experiences, rights, and interests of Chinese women, who have repeatedly found themselves drawing the short straw when it comes to the country’s seismic shifts in demographic policy. A Weibo feminist noted that “in the absence of policies and protections that uphold our basic socioeconomic liberties, I can’t see women having more children, when doing so would greatly jeopardize our careers and future plans.”

Female participation and presence in the highest echelons of Chinese corporations have steadily declined since 1990—at the cusp of the country’s rapid economic liberalization and opening up, which brought with it many of the setbacks typically associated with neoliberal and patriarchal economics. As of 2019, fewer than 10 percent of board directors at listed companies were female. One factor is the view that successful women would eventually end up having (numerous) children, so it would be a safer bet for corporations to invest in men, who are supposedly unencumbered by the burden of child care. Chinese women, as in many countries, find themselves compelled to choose between continuity in their career and having children. Given China’s increasingly cutthroat corporate environment and a need for a stable income in a turbulent economy, many opt for the former.

More fundamentally, as the scholar Yunxiang Yan argues, Chinese society—especially women and youth—is increasingly individualistic, with a heightened emphasis on individual choice. More than previous generations, millennial and Generation Z Chinese women have defied traditionalist expectations that they marry, bear children, and quit their jobs.

The three-child policy thus mistakes a demand-side issue (whether women want to have children) for a supply-side issue (whether families are given the opportunity to have children). To tackle the real issue, Beijing would have to substantially reduce the costs and perils associated with child care, the burdens imposed on full-time female workers also loaded up with mortgages and insurance, as well as offer cultural and social norm sensitivity training that pushes for a more egalitarian division of domestic labor. Women colloquially hold up half the sky—but the reality is that they end up bearing most of the brunt of raising a child.

Finally, of course, there is the ethical question of what the government ought to do with children and families that defy government policies. Generations of children have been born under the radar—the surplus births that fell afoul of the one-child policy. These children’s very being was illegal under then-Chinese law, and they were unlikely to be registered with the state; many were consequently denied access to education, health care, and basic rights. These heihaizi, as they are called, ought to have their rights recognized, and the injustices done to them acknowledged, by the state. Reparation is a moral necessity, as argued by many whose parents were heavily penalized when their heihaizi children were discovered by the state.

Adopting such policies would not necessarily spur any family’s interest in child rearing, any more than ethical consumerism would prompt folks to consume more. Yet it’s not just the quantity that matters. The quality of life matters equally, especially for those who have long been excluded from the political system and public infrastructure.

Looking to the future, some commentators—including researchers at the People’s Bank of China—have even called on Beijing to lift all restrictions on births so as to grant robust legal protections to surplus children who would still, even under the new policy, be born outside the law.

Officials and academics alike have expressed reservations about the desirability of lifting all restrictions on births, fearing uncontrollable population growth, as in the early days of the Communist Party’s rule. Yet such fears are distinctly overblown; the China of today is not comparable—in any meaningful shape or form—to the China of the 1970s: It has a substantial and steadily increasing middle class of highly educated, technical, and skilled laborers, who are unlikely to want more than one child; hugely improved literacy rates and access to contraception in the rural countryside have vastly mitigated the possibility of rural overpopulation. If anything, measures aimed at population control at large should be radically relaxed, as the country confronts issues including an aging population and a shrinking demographic and labor dividend.

Chinese citizens have mixed reviews toward the three-child policy, and how Beijing responds could well be a critical test of its ability to gauge and understand its public.

Brian Y.S. Wong is the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Political Review and a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong.