China’s Three-child Policy and Traditional Gender Norms

In 1979, China’s one-child policy was introduced to curb the country’s population growth. Couples have been allowed to have two children since 2016, when the policy was replaced by a two-child policy. Yet, birth rates increased only for the first two years after the shift and have been declining since. In fact, China’s birth rates have hit the lowest levels since the 1960s. Last year, about 12 million babies were born in China, which differs greatly from the 18 million babies born in 2016. The country is facing a population crisis, driven by decreasing birth rates, a shrinking workforce, and an aging population. This appears to concern the government, which urges people to have more children. Possibly in response to the trend of falling birth rates, China recently announced that it would allow couples to have up to three children. However, despite this push for raised birth rates, many do not want more children. Due to traditional gender norms and roles, particularly women feel that they have to choose between having children and their careers, which has resulted in some completely refraining from having children.

Three-child Policy Sparking Skepticism

The National Bureau of Statistics has stated that the new three-child policy will help to alleviate China’s low fertility level. However, experts have claimed that if the birth control policies were effective, the two-child policy would have demonstrated this already. The three-child policy has also faced criticism from Chinese millennials online. Many have been skeptical about the policy making any difference in raising the birth rates in the long run. While some commented on social media that they could not afford a second child to begin with, which would make a third child even more difficult, others stated that they did not even want one child. On Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, one user commented that people were being “reduced to data”, and some netizens called for compensation for the trauma their families had to go through for desiring more children than they were allowed to have previously. Netizens also brought up the story of Feng Jiamei, who was forced to have an abortion when she was seven months pregnant since she was unable to pay the fine that she was given for having a second child, under the one-child policy.

Women’s Traditional Gender Norms Still Linger

Some have argued that child policies are not the only thing that keeps people from having more children. Since the relaxing of the family planning policies did not come with other reforms that would make it easier for couples to have children, for instance, access to childcare facilities or economic support for education, while the costs of living are rising, a lot of people cannot afford to have more children. Simultaneously, the idea of what makes a person successful in life has changed over time, especially in urban areas. Traditionally, getting married and having children were such markers of success, but these have to a great extent been replaced by personal growth. Similar to the trend of falling birth rates, marriage rates have also declined in recent years, which has been partly attributed to women becoming increasingly more educated and financially independent. This seems, in turn, to have changed women’s attitudes towards marriage. Today, many young women in China delay or rule out marriage and childbirth.

Lingering traditional gender norms and roles still set expectations for Chinese women to do most of the housework and take care of the children, even when working full-time. Men, however, contribute to housework and childcare to a limited extent. At the same time, gender discrimination against women in the workplace and in the job-seeking process are widespread in China. Needless to say, it is very difficult for women to handle both a career and having children. In fact, these circumstances lead to some women choosing not to have any children at all. For some women, refraining from having children and marrying is a political statement against the system’s gender inequality.

Moreover, since the announcement of the three-child policy, Chinese women have been worrying that the widespread gender-based job discrimination will deepen further. Some have argued that women’s space in the workplace could be squeezed even more, as employers may fear that women who already have two children would now want a third child. Women in China are given at least 98 days of maternity leave in accordance with the law. Yet, according to Human Rights Watch, female employees have been fired for getting pregnant, some while on maternity leave or soon after coming back. Female workers have also been required to sign contracts in which they promise to refrain from having children. The government has, after the announcement of the new three-child policy, stated that it will “protect the legal rights and interests of women in employment”. However, this was followed by criticism online from Chinese social media users, who argued that the pledge was too vague.

Reinforcement of Traditional Values and Norms

In 2016, President Xi Jinping pledged that traditional family values would be reinforced, as part of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts of reshaping China’s societal values. Along similar lines, state media have in recent years encouraged women to take care of children at home. In one article published in 2016, it was stated that the two-child policy would enable more working women to “return to their families” and take care of their children. Women’s traditional gender norms and roles appear to be being reinforced, despite many women trying to break free from these.

Men’s traditional gender norms have also been promoted by the authorities recently. In February this year, the Ministry of Education announced that it planned to “cultivate masculinity” by increasing the amount of gym classes in schools to make young men more masculine, as well as increase the number of male teachers. The ostensible aim of these initiatives is to improve the mental and physical health of boys in school. This plan appears to have come as a response to a suggestion made by Si Zefu, a top political advisor, who stressed the necessity of combating the so-called “feminization” of young men in China. He argued that the country had to “prevent young men from becoming effeminate”. However, the proposal sparked anger online.

Netizens on Chinese social media platforms criticized it for signaling that “feminine” is a bad word. One Weibo user argued that the only way to make men more masculine would be to make fathers work at home, full-time, and raise their children. This focus on masculinity is, nevertheless, not new. In 2018, South China Morning Post reported that since 2012 more than 20,000 boys had participated in a special training center in China, which had been set up to help the children “find their lost masculinity”. Furthermore, in 2020, Hangzhou Marathon posters fronted by a Chinese boy band wearing make-up and having dyed hair were taken down due to runners considering the boys as “not masculine enough”. The authorities have also targeted male celebrities, whom they claimed to be too effeminate, while video-streaming platforms have censored earrings worn by male actors.

As housework and childcare are to a great extent associated with women and femininity, it seems that efforts promoting masculinity and preventing the proliferation of “effeminate men” are deepening men’s traditional gender norms and roles in society, while discouraging men from embracing new norms and roles, such as sharing the workload at home equally. This may, in turn, prevent women from breaking free from traditional gender norms and roles which include staying at home to take care of the household and the children. While the three-child policy appears to be yet another effort to raise the country’s birth rates in order to prevent the looming population crisis, many couples cannot afford or just do not want more children. Due to traditional gender norms and roles, women, in particular, feel that they must choose between having children and their careers. Against this backdrop, it seems unlikely that the new three-child policy, alone, will increase the country’s birth rates.