Have three kids! Can China’s new edict reverse the fallout from its one-child policy?

The Zhang sisters tear around their cramped, high-rise apartment. They’re buzzing, practising their dance moves as they fight over chocolates, their mum’s smartphone and books. Yueying, 14, rattles off her favourite characters in Harry Potter; Boran, 7, who just started primary school, is perfecting her selfies; and three-year-old Xinyu is bouncing on her grandmother’s lap. They finish their run of morning chaos by wedging themselves on the couch between a fish tank and a map of China that fills this three-bedroom, ninth-floor unit in Yucheng, a city of half a million people, 370 kilometres south of Beijing.

Yueying is loud and ambitious. The lanky teenager, already a foot taller than her mother, wants to become a traditional Chinese dancer. Her sisters look up to her from the couch, each of them holding a pillow with an image of their face printed on it. There are arguments and competition, she says via a translator. I have more sisters than other kids and it’s a little bit chaotic, but mum is very gentle and my sisters share with me.

This scene was illegal in most of China until June last year. For four decades, strict family-planning policies enforced by the Chinese Communist Party banned couples from having more than one child. In 2016, this was relaxed to two children per couple – and in 2021, it changed again, to three children per couple. At its height in the 1980s and ’90s, the one-child policy resulted in forced abortions and sterilisations, hospitals filled with devastated mothers and babies left in ditches. Driven by a preference for boys, decades of female infanticide left China with 35 million more men than women last year, according to China’s national bureau of statistics.

The policy, which began in 1980 to control what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regarded as unsustainable population growth, was aimed at helping the economy prosper. There would be fewer people to feed in a country where 30 per cent of people were undernourished. In the following decades, China enjoyed an average annual growth rate of almost 10 per cent but the one-child policy sent China off a demographic cliff that is now threatening to make the world’s second-largest economy old before it becomes rich. The situation is much more serious than the Chinese government reveals, says Yi Fuxian, a senior scientist in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose 2007 book Big Country with an Empty Nest was initially banned in China. The official data says the fertility rate [babies per female] is 1. 3 but actually, I think it could be as low as 0. 8.

Yi is sceptical of Chinese government data, which can be massaged to suit political ends. Figures for fertility in 2000 and 2010 were retrospectively adjusted from 1. 22 and 1. 18 respectively up to 1. 8 (in 2007) and 1. 63 (in 2020), based on primary-school enrolments. Even its best-case scenario of 1. 3 is well below the 2. 1 needed to replace deaths in the world’s most populous country. A 2020 study in medical journal The Lancet warned that China needs larger families to avoid its population halving from 1. 4 billion to 730 million by 2100.

Faced with a demographic crisis of its own making, the Chinese government is now encouraging families to have at least two, preferably three children. It’s doing this not only by words, but also by pushing billions of dollars into tax breaks, childcare and education. After decades of society being geared towards only one child, however, many families are not listening.

A second child might mean poverty to us, says 36-year-old Beijing mother Sharon Piao. She quit her job in IT to care for her newborn daughter last year. I completely gave up on the idea of having a second child after giving birth. Even if some supportive measures are introduced in the future along with the three-child policy, it won’t change my mind. Because the reality is a bit cruel.

Piao reflects the view of millions of young women in Shanghai and Beijing, where the expense involved in housing, medical treatment, education and childcare has raced ahead of wage rises. The cost of just having a child is too high, not to mention the cost of raising it, says Piao. We had to pay tens of thousands of yuan for all kinds of health checks, hospitalisation and maternity care.

Xu Zhenzhen, the doting mother of the Zhang girls, married at 22 and had her first baby, Yueying, at 23. When she left school, she wanted to be an accountant. She then had dreams of becoming a hairdresser but by the time she’d had her last child, all that had gone out the window. The family scrapes by, largely with her husband’s income. He earns enough as a mechanic, four hours’ drive away in Beijing, to cover the mortgage on the apartment he typically visits only once every couple of months. Upholding the family is a part of a woman’s life, but wasting your whole life on it is wrong, Xu says. Taking care of children every day is too boring. I hope my daughters can pursue their own dreams.

Sleeping in a bedroom nearby is a fourth Zhang girl. Little Xinran is barely eight months old and, legally speaking, should not exist. When she wakes, Xinran rolls around and grasps a mandarin between her tiny fingers, unaware of the social and political forces that surrounded her birth. Of course, some people gossip about us, saying, ‘This woman has so many daughters because she wanted a son,’  Xu says, as Xinyu pats her knee to get up on her lap. But I really didn’t want more children. When I was pregnant with my second baby, I knew it was a girl. If I really wanted a boy, I could have aborted, but I didn’t. The only reason I’d like to have a boy is to make myself free from regret. People in rural China still have the traditional mindset that a family must have a male heir.

Xu worried she would not be able to register Xinran for hukou, the ancient social security system, that translates as mouths to feed. New babies get their birth certificate via the hospital but the hukou defines social-security benefits like healthcare and schooling, and can be used to punish those who don’t fit into the CCP’s vision for society. But it seems the family-planning reinforcement is not as tight as before, says Xu. In the past, I heard some people got arrested and beaten up for having a fourth child.

While over the decades authorities punished families with too many children, workplaces were also geared towards discouraging childbirth: maternity leave was rare and women were overlooked for positions because of the possibility they could have children. Entire industries sprang up designed to turn only-children into super-kids and their mothers into tiger mums. After-school tutoring had become a $175 billion industry by 2019. (The government has now shut the for-profit tutoring sector down, because surging costs and societal expectations were stopping people from having more than one child. )

All this had created an environment built to meet the needs of families with one child. It was such a big mistake, such a stupid policy, says obstetrics scientist Yi Fuxian, who points to data showing that prior to the one-child policy’s introduction, China’s fertility rate was already falling as the country became wealthier and people moved from the regions into the cities.

The Chinese Communist Party does not shift lightly. That it’s moved from a policy restricting families to having only one child, to two, then three, within five years underlines its desperation to avoid a failure of multi-generational magnitude. On its current trajectory, a halving of the population by 2100 would see decades of young Chinese workers supporting the much larger elderly population through retirement, reducing the overall amount of disposable income in the world’s largest consumer market, forcing taxes up and growth down in a country that accounts for 19 per cent of the world’s economy.

China’s median age is now 38, up from 25 in 1990. By 2050, its median age is expected to be 48, according to United Nations’ population projections. (Australia also has a median age of 38 but the Australian Bureau of Statistics has projected this to rise to only a maximum of 43 by 2066, thanks to an expected influx of migrants. )

Song Jian, deputy director of the Population Development Studies Centre at Beijing’s Renmin University, sounded the alarm in January at a Chinese government-approved press conference. China is still in the window of opportunity of the so-called demographic dividend, but this window is about to close, he said, referring to the last chance to keep its working-age population larger than its non-working population.

Officials are now scrambling to work out how to convince the population to have more babies after ordering them not to for decades. Childcare services have been made tax-deductible in an effort to shift the burden away from parents and grandparents, but only 5 per cent of kids are in daycare compared with up to 45 per cent in Australia.

Maternity leave in 25 provinces has been extended by 30 to 90 days. Some areas with birth rates of less than 1. 3 are competing against each other to offer the most generous benefits. In Zhejiang province, for instance, new mothers get a bonus of 60 days’ maternity leave after the first baby and 90 days’ leave after the second and third. But a 2016 survey by the government-controlled All-China Women’s Federation found that only 21 per cent of women said they would like to have a second child. A separate study by Peking University put that number at 40 per cent. Few Chinese women appear to be following through with that intent. Yi Fuxian says China is ageing faster than Japan and possibly faster than South Korea, the two Asian powerhouses now facing large workforce shortages.

All three countries have a restrictive attitude to immigration, meaning that unlike Australia, Western Europe, Britain and North America, they will not turn to migrants to fix labour deficits. China went from on average 15 million births a year to only 10 million a year last year, says James Liang, a research professor of applied economics at Peking University. That’s a huge drop.

Liang is more sensitive than most academics to the business impacts of economic decline. He co-founded the trip. com group, the $7 billion multinational online travel giant that has 400 million members worldwide. Everybody’s at the stage where we need to solve this problem, he says from his home in Shanghai.

Liang estimates Western countries with low fertility rates spend about 1 to 3 per cent of their annual economic output on childcare and other subsidies to provide incentives for women to have children. That’s a huge number for people to digest, he says. China probably needs to spend more than that, because China has one of the highest costs of raising a child relative to income in the world. You’re talking about maybe 2 to 5 per cent of GDP, or even higher, to solve this problem.

That’s up to a trillion dollars, or $70,000 per family per child. That is too much for rural Chinese but too little for urban Chinese, observes Liang. So you need to make it cost-of-living adjusted. Part of this should be cash, but it should be tax rebates and part of it should be a housing subsidy.

House prices jumped by 30 per cent in Beijing and Shanghai between 2015 and 2017, leaving many families struggling to afford a home, let alone pay for all the extra tuition expected to keep their kids ahead. The challenge has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Two years of pandemic life have given young Chinese residents fewer chances to interact, date and have sex, driving an already low fertility rate down even further.

For the Chinese government, taking on the economic challenge is an enormous hurdle. Undoing years of generational trauma is just as big. The discomfiting legacy of the one-child policy continues to haunt the unknown millions who were abandoned or delivered to orphanages not knowing who their biological parents were.

Some, though, were adopted out to loving parents. Kathryn Ford, now 22, grew up in Tasmania: she was among the first Chinese orphans to come to Australia under a formal inter-country adoption program. The group of 16, known as Australia one, landed here on the eve of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. I was the youngest, at 10 months old; the oldest was seven, says Ford.

More than two decades later, dressed in a pink knit, Ford looks like any of the other 30,000 students at the University of Tasmania. But the photos that cover the wall behind her in her suburban Hobart home reveal a past more complicated than that of most of her peers. I don’t even know my birthday, she says. I don’t know where I was born.

She was thought to be three months old in 1999 when she was found, placed between two imperial lion statues at the gate of the Xinan local court in Guangdong. Like thousands of others in what is now one of China’s wealthiest provinces, she was scooped up by police and taken to a nearby welfare centre. The only information Ford and her Australian parents have about her origins is printed on a certificate dated December 22, 1999. It gives her Chinese name, Fu Jiemei, and that of the Zhangbian police station whose officers took her from the foot of the lion statues. Her natural parents and other relatives have not been found until [sic] this day, it says.

Her Australian parents, Rod Ford and Jan Williamson, aged 39 and 37 at the time, chose to adopt from China because a joint Australian-Chinese government program had just begun. There were plenty of children who needed new families, and the system was heavily regulated. Ford’s younger sister, Sarah, was also adopted from China. Rod and Jan’s only knowledge of the children they were about to spend their lives with was based on basic records and photos sent to them before they got on a plane to Guangdong. They just wanted a family and it didn’t really matter what it looked like to them, explains Ford.

The couple gave their daughters a happy Australian upbringing, but with few other Asian faces in their school, Ford was hit by an identity crisis in her early teenage years. It was about finding my place and not really feeling like I belonged, she says. You don’t know how puberty is going to affect you, or what you’re going to grow up to be like, and whether you’ve inherited anything or whether it’s purely environmental from my adoptive parents.

She took a DNA test in a search for answers. Almost a decade later, her results remain on the genetic-testing website waiting for a match. I check it every so often, just because there’s always a part of me at least who thinks, ‘They could be out there, also wanting to find me,’ but then it’s also that one-in-a-million chance, she says.

To estimate the day a child was born, nurses in China measure the length of the umbilical cord. If the cord still attached to the belly is shorter, the child is older. The longer the cord, the younger the child. I don’t think I’m the age that I was given, says Ford. I think they gave me a few extra months. I was found on December 22, 1999. But they said I was born on October 18. It could be just a random date that the government gave me.

October 18 remains a difficult day. I try to keep myself busy because I can get very emotional. That’s not uncommon [among adoptees]. I think feelings of abandonment can come up, and just being quite sad about your birth culture being left behind.

In an attempt to bridge that gap, the Fords go to Hobart’s Pot Sticker Dumpling House restaurant on her birthday, an unpretentious joint that serves the staples found in many beloved suburban Chinese restaurants across Australia. There’s a bit of connection there with my birth, heritage and food. I found food is a really great way of learning more about it, too, Ford says. Ethnically I look Chinese, internally I am quite Australian. It’s the way I was raised. It’s the people who I was raised by. It’s the people who I’m surrounded by. It’s where I live. But there are times when I think, ‘What if I did live in China or what if I did live in China in the future? Would that change the way I think about my identity? ’ 

The same existential search for answers is raised by each of the half-a-dozen abandoned children Good Weekend speaks to for this story. Many are thankful for their new lives overseas, but some remain frustrated they were never given the chance to know their roots. I don’t know what my family circumstances were like – if I had a family over there – but I think I would definitely have had a different life, Ford says. Not that it’s a bad thing or anything. It’s just different.

The adoptive parents of children like Ford also have to manage that tension. Canberran Lisa Wilson hates it when people call her children lucky. She adopted her son Ezekiel in 2003 and daughter Caitlin in 2011, both from China. We’re the lucky ones, she says. Never say to an adoptee ‘You’re lucky,’ because it’s grounded on a loss. It’s a loss of birth culture. They have had advantages in Australia that they may not have got in China. But it doesn’t make them lucky.

At age 39, after multiple unsuccessful attempts to have her own biological child, Wilson travelled with her husband to visit an orphanage close to the Three Gorges Dam, which spans the Yangtze River. We chose China because Australia had a program with it, she says. There was a large Chinese community in Australia and China was relatively close, so we knew we’d be able to take the kids back relatively easily. Now 58, and a key part of the network, Wilson recalls babies in cots and toddlers spread throughout a hall. It was totally emotional. We were crying. The children were crying.

Ezekiel, who was 13 months old when he came to Australia and is now 20, has travelled with Wilson to his orphanage every two years since he was adopted. The more he travelled, the more interested in his past he became – but finding out any concrete details about his birth parents has been impossible. Ezekiel has gone back to the village that he was found in quite a number of times. Nobody’s ever come forward and said, ‘Hey, that’s our child,’  says Wilson. But he’s in no doubt what life would have been like there. It was a very rural village. We’ve sponsored children who go to school there because they were being withdrawn from school in year two, so they’re only about seven years old. They only get two years’ worth of schooling. And that’s it.

Ezekiel grew up while China modernised. When Wilson visited in 2003 to pick him up, it took her two hours to drive from the administrative centre in Fuling to Zhinan, the village where he was born. The road looked like it had been bombed, says Wilson. Now with all the money that’s been pumped in, it takes us 20 minutes to get there. The local family-planning office that Wilson visited in 2003 has since closed down.

Yuleba, south-west Queensland, population 200, is not where you’d expect to find one of China’s largest orphanage operators. Linda Shum, 72, has three middle-aged kids of her own and another 424 whom she’s raised through her Eagle Wings orphanages in China since 2006. The orphanages have helped connect hundreds of kids with adoptive parents and raise those not placed in a new home to adulthood. We had myriad babies abandoned in a box at the gate of the first orphanage in Jiaozuo, Shum recalls. Police would find them on the road, police would find them in the park or the supermarket, or the hospital.

She speaks in tangents, as if all the lives she’s seen have melded into one long tragic anecdote. There’s the boy who fell from the sixth floor and survived; the pregnant mother whose baby lived after she was stabbed by a needle in her belly, only to be drowned by doctors; and the little girl who remembered being abandoned in the street at age three. Baba, baba, dage dage, buyao qu, buyao qu, the little girl yelled. (Daddy, daddy, big brother, big brother, don’t go, don’t go. ) The little girl would yell the same thing every night for years. We knew then that she was dreaming about her father and her big brother lifting her up because she couldn’t walk, says Shum. I snuffled as many of those kids away to my foster homes as possible.

China’s new policies have changed Shum’s life. At her busiest, her teams were taking care of 90 kids; now fewer than 30 reside in her remaining orphanages. I’ve gone from eight foster homes in China down to four, and soon it will be three, she says. Only the disabled kids have been left behind.

COVID has prevented Shum from visiting China, so she now spends her time coordinating teams in China to help find homes for the children left behind. Many will be adopted around the world: in Spain, England, France, the Netherlands, Norway and America. One of them is Sophie Fu Jie Crockett, 17, who was abandoned as a baby. Leaving a kid lying on the street – that does not make any sense, she says from her adopted suburban home in Richmond, Washington, on the west coast of the US. For a long time I was thinking, ‘Why doesn’t my mum want me or want to see me? ’ Later on, I heard you can only have one child in a family. My mum didn’t give me up, she had no choice.

Crockett has cerebral palsy. She’s thankful for the love of her adopted family and the medical care she has received in the US, but says it’s still really hard to process why she doesn’t have a birth mum. It’s good that they can have three children now, she says. Hopefully, they don’t have to go through what I went through, or what a million kids went through before they got adopted.

In Escondido, California, 19-year-old Zhuhua Ni is becoming more desperate to find out who she is. I don’t remember China, she says. But my body does. It’s the trauma. Ni is angry at the Chinese government for wreaking so much harm on its people. Shame on you, she says. For doing this to millions of girls, trying to prevent births and devaluing human life.

The lives of Ni, Crockett, Ford, Ezekiel and their siblings were irrevocably altered by an artificial target that brought tragedy and despair to millions of Chinese families. Now, with a new target of three children per family, reversing its self-inflicted population decline will be the Chinese government’s biggest challenge in decades.

Andrew Polk, head of economic research at analytics firm Trivium China, describes the three-child stimulus measures introduced so far as lipstick on a pig. China’s demographic issues represent the most pressing and intractable policy problems. So far, top policymakers don’t have many good solutions, he says. Beijing must first address multiple structural issues, including housing and education costs and pregnancy discrimination, to get Chinese couples firing up those baby-makers.

If they fail, China’s once dynamic economy will become filled with more old people, an insufficient elderly-care capacity (children are expected to look after their aged parents) and a shrinking workforce burdened with additional pensions. The education sector will also stagnate – as will China’s prospects of overtaking the US as the world’s biggest economy.

Inside the apartment in Yucheng, Xu Zhenzhen is thankful for each of her four children but frank about what it’s cost her. She can put food on the table and raise them but struggles with China’s intensely competitive education system and the cost of trying to get each child through school. I’ve already told my children, ‘Don’t follow in your mum’s footsteps,’  she sighs.

Fourteen-year-old Yueying has no intention of doing so. When I grow up, I would like to have two kids, one son and one daughter, she says. I also hope to develop my career because my own career can pave the way to the success of my children. Yueying’s goals speak to the anxieties of her generation. Whether her ambitions are enough to save China from itself remains to be seen.

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