A severe national gender imbalance, an ageing population and a shrinking workforce: this is the modern legacy of China’s one-child policy. The policy, first implemented in 1979, aimed to ensure that population growth did not outpace economic development, exhaust environmental resources or exceed natural assets. It was enforced through the provision of mandatory contraceptives and, as its name suggests, limited couples to having only one child. However, by 2016, and the prevention of an estimated 400 million births later, China was in a growing crisis.
In 2013, Deputy Director of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, Wang Peian, commented that China’s population would not grow substantially in the short term. And so, by 2015, the government-mandated one-child policy officially ended; in its stead in 2016, came the two-child policy. Then, in May 2021, another revision was made to the Population and Family Planning Law. This brought the three-child policy into effect. But it is increasingly clear that the one-child policy and been extremely successful in reshaping people’s behaviour and will not be easily forgotten: in 2016, of the 11 million couples eligible for children, only 800 000 applied.
In the decades since the one-child policy was introduced, adhering to it by undergoing sterilisation or having an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted came to be viewed as a woman’s duty, both in rural and urban communities. Between 1980 and 2014, 324 million women had IUDs implanted and 108 million were sterilised. Consequently, both birth and fertility rates steadily decreased. Despite exemptions made for couples during both the one and two-child policy era, these rates have continued to decline.
Birth and fertility rates have been one casualty of the one-child policy. Another is women’s rights. Simply, the one-child policy prioritised China at the expense of its women, compromising female sovereignty, autonomy and empowerment. Numerous aspects of the one-child policy, and its successors, battered the notion of women empowerment. The policy institutionalised the female body in law and culture; children could not be born, and women could not be pregnant unless sanctioned by the government. The most widely used contraceptives were geared towards women, and any objection they made was deemed to be dishonourable.
The three-child policy comes as a double-edged sword for women empowerment. It allows added room for family planning and female autonomy – but on the flipside, the circumstances surrounding the amended policy are steeped in necessity, and therefore, it is laden with traditional implications. If formerly it was a woman’s duty and responsibility to have only one child, enforced by the pressures of social norms, would a woman then have to have three children under those same circumstances? And if she did not, would she then bring shame to her family?
To add fuel to the fire, the incredibly high cost of living in China has created a generation of working women. Bloomberg reports that more than 40% of working women do not want children; of those who already have one, do not wish for a second. As of 2019, women were estimated to make up 43.7% of the labour workforce. And despite a 98-day work leave for new mothers, their absence is often met with workplace discrimination and their employment is sometimes terminated. A 2018 study by Catalyst found that 19% of civil service job listings explicitly outlined their preference for male applicants. And, Catalyst continued, women made up only 9.7% of the board of directors for Chinese companies. So, not only is it difficult for women in China to find a job, let alone get hired - it is even harder for a woman to acquire a good job, and harder still to have a good job and keep it if they fall pregnant.
The three-child policy, then, has not emerged from women’s pleas. The Chinese population is estimated to reach its peak in 2038 and the government is desperately trying to revive the national birthrate; however, it is clear, women do not want to have children. Under the weight of China’s economy, women are yet again being forced into a corner. The three-child policy has re-institutionalised women without accounting for the social and financial situation of the modern woman. Although it does not demand that women have three children, it places them under the immense pressures of traditional and social gender norms, detracting from female autonomy and women’s empowerment.