Falling Fertility Rate: Chinese Girls Have a Plan

Written by Mona Jiang |  2023.2.2 

Having walked away from several match-making appointments after the first meetings, the 28-year-old Chinese girl Holly Zhang said grievously. “In China, boys of my generation still want to find a girl who they can control and who can devote themselves to child care and parents.” “Yet, the traditional philosophy of Chinese family division- the man in charge of external affairs and the woman internal- no longer applies nowadays because it’s unstable and unfair for women,” she said, “the next generation, the current 17- or 18-year-old and so on might have a different mindset. They may be more willing to acknowledge the capacity and equal status of women.”

According to the national statistics, China’s fertility rate has been below the replacement level of 2.1 since 1990. Recently, Chinese authorities announced a population shrank in 2022 for the first time in 60 years, losing 850,000 people as deaths outstripped births. Though the covid pandemic might have played a role in the decline, the value shift in China, especially in Chinese women is tangible and seminal.

When it comes to her definition of marriage and family. Holly Zhang, a post-doctorate in medicine, said “For me, marriage is like a merger of two companies, so the couples are just co-partners and the child is their common asset.” 

Though Zhang looked forward to establishing a family, she couldn’t find the anticipated equality and stability in it. Instead, she felt right when she devoted herself to her career, “ A job or a career is relatively stable and long-lasting. As long as you are hard-working, your career will prosper. Yet, love is different. Many couples found their relations soured and have to dawdle along.” “Anyhow, a husband is not an indispensable element for a happy life,” Zhang said and shook her ponytail.

Many of her female colleagues share the same feeling in prioritizing their careers over families. “They are all 28 or 29 years old, but the unmarried-to-married ratio is just 9 to 1,” Zhang said.

The current marital landscape looks alien to the older generation. “How can a girl stay single? It’s a natural law that one should have a family and then have children. For babies, a boy and a girl are the best. If not, having children is always better than having none,” said a 91-year-old grandma Sun Shiyan.

Born in 1932, Sun, a retired professor of art at Northeast Normal University, used to be an avant-garde of her age. In 1950, China passed the New Marriage Law, which outlawed arranged marriages and concubines, and enabled women to divorce their husbands. Sun was the first girl in her region to divorce her husband under this law.  

“During the Cultural Revolution, my ex-husband was permanently expelled to the countryside for being a suspect against Communism. He cried and said he could divorce with me, but I refused. However, when the movement ended, he was politically rehabilitated, joined the communist party, and became arrogant again, I decisively divorced him,” Sun narrated, “The process took about half a year. The court talked with us respectively, then surveyed our workplaces and neighbours, before they summarized and approved my petition.”

Despite twists and turns, Sun eventually had a new family and a child. In retrospect, she said “ I didn’t think too much. It’s natural. Marriage is necessary, a path everyone takes. I didn’t even think about how many children I wanted to have. I would take whatever nature grants me.” 

Compared with the “Naturalism” of the older generation, the young Chinese tends to push themselves to become masterminded planners.

A 22-year-old girl named Jiang Xue said, “I have my international plan. After finishing my Maters’ degree in Hong Kong, I hope to pursue a doctoral degree overseas and perhaps work in the United Nations in the future. Instead of resigning myself to destiny, I have a strict plan for myself. I will have a child when I’m 30 no matter whether I have a boyfriend, a family, or not at the time. The most important thing is making sure my plans for my child and my career are compatible.”

The 28-year-old Zhang Honglin also has a plan for herself. “If I still cannot find a suitable partner when I’m 36 or 37, I will go to the sperm bank; if it fails and I’m already 40, I might consider egg freezing.” Yet, Zhang is well aware that reproductive technologies haven’t been fully opened to unmarried women in mainland China. Meanwhile, the support facilities for single mothers and their children are far from sufficient- the children are often faced with an inability to become registered residents in China. Consequently, difficulties occur when they need to go to school or find a job, and other suffocating discrimination will haunt them for life.  

“The question at the core is should female has the freedom and right to choose procreation method, should female has a say of her own body?” said Xu Zaozao, the first Chinese female who sued a hospital in 2019 for refusing to conduct egg freezing for unmarried women.

“The awakening of Chinese women is inevitable, the trend is irreversible,” said Choi Yuk-ping, a professor at the Gender Research Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong “Though the government has invested a great deal in cutting educational costs and increasing financial subsidies to stimulate childbirth, they’ve overlooked the fundamental needs and value shifts of Chinese women. To solve the population problem, a more equal and liberal mindset is needed. ” 

Please stay tuned, more stories to come~