Shenzhen, China – An afternoon in a quiet corner of Lianhuashan Park in the heart of Shenzhen’s high-tech Chinese showcase, Ling, 25, is engaged in decidedly low-tech advertising navigation activities for potential partners.
Men receive light blue cards, women light pink, grouped by decade of birth. The cards hang rigid and impersonal from hundreds of wires in the “Matchmaking Corner” circular structure built by the municipal government, whose offices are within walking distance.
Like many younger men and women living in Shenzhen without official residence in the city, Ling faces the possibility of finding a wife, starting a family and staying in the city in the long run when they are thin – even if preferring to take that course.
“The biggest problem is working and having enough money and getting a home,” he said. “I have some friends who worked in Shenzhen, but now they have moved to other areas. The cost of living puts too much pressure on them. ”
Ling’s hukou – China’s internal family registration system – links most of its health and social security, as well as the education of its future children, to a rural village in Shandong province far from China. north, the place of his birth.
Ling, who did not want her full name to be used to protect his privacy, works as a real estate agent. But the work requires little more than answering phones, discouraging potential buyers from owning them, with little chance of upward mobility.
As China moves to allow couples to have a maximum of three children, it is increasingly clear that the government will have to address the needs and concerns of people like Ling who want to start families and have children, but are pressured by a lack of education, living costs and barriers to movement such as the hukou system – realities of life in China that deter many couples working to contemplate the idea of having more than one child, even less than two or three.
“How can we take care of nine?”
An online survey circulated in early May in China found that just over half of young people do not want to have a child, let alone a second or third.
One of the reasons is the cost of buying a home. Most men feel the need to own property before proposing marriage, so it is a great premarital barrier for a man and his extended family, which often helps pay for the first home. Others included concerns about caring for children, the high cost of education and after-school programs, first- and second-tier city point systems that determine whether a child can enter a school. local or not, and changing mindsets among younger people who want to pursue individual dreams that don’t revolve around starting a family.
Women – who take the lion’s share of caring for children – are also increasingly less willing to have a second child after being tired of caring for their first.
A remark that circulated on Chinese social media hours after China announced the move to a three-child policy on the last day of May was from a couple saying, “We are already caring for a family of eight. , how can we take care of nine? “
Translation: Working-age couples in China are often required to care for themselves and two groups of parents who do not have much income from savings or pension plans if any, plus all children who already have them.
Although the parents of such workers often help with home and child care, the costs associated with age-appropriate health care – along with the child’s upbringing costs – are a huge burden.
China’s fertility rate will slow to 1.3 births per woman by 2020 and seems likely to revolve around that rate, unless Beijing authorities lower the pressure on working families. While those authorities say efforts to improve policies related to maternity leave and insurance, as well as to strengthen support for fiscal and housing policy, are ongoing, most parents are working. in China they have no hope.
The benefits spread after the policy for a child was relaxed in 2015 failed to reduce burdens and significantly increase birth rates.
Chang Qingsong, an associate professor at the Population Research Institute of Xiamen University, believes the government should go further and remove the boundaries entirely so that families can decide whether they want children or not.
“The Chinese government could loosen the limit on the number of children a family can have, and provide maximum support to families who have the capacity and conditions to have more children,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Instead of prescribing how many children they can have, the government needs to reduce the burdens on families to increase their intention to give birth,” she said. “Predictably, even if the couples were allowed to have a third child, most couples would not.”
Crossing the needle
Failed or stagnant birth rates might not mean so much at this time, but as China’s population ages rapidly, economic growth could take a hit as the labor force declines 15 years from now, according to a note from Yue Up, chief economist of The Economist Intelligence Unit.
The new three-child policy could also have more negative short-term impacts on women, she wrote, with companies assuming women would want more children and potentially opt to employ men instead of avoiding maternity costs and time off. from work.
Ashton Verdery, an associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State University, said it appears the three-child policy is more of a reaction to recent census data showing that China has an aging population. rapidly and rapidly closing in on its target population, but a detailed policy to try to deal with the pressures could come later.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they pivot towards some sort of special credits that people receive for having more children or other policies that facilitate the challenges of having more children,” he told Al Jazeera.
For example, Chinese authorities have encouraged some regions to try parental leave schemes.
“I could imagine China could build more homes that are friendly to larger families and things like that,” he said. “The Chinese state has a much larger share in the economy and may therefore be able to move the needle a little bit.”
For Scott Rozelle, development economist and co-director of the Rural Education Action Program at Stanford University, China’s demographic problem is not so much quantity as quality.
Much of this lack of quality in the workforce is because China has not been able to provide education for all young people through high school, especially in rural areas.
Without raising the education levels of rural children and educating those rural hukou holders who do not have them through high school, simply having more children will not solve China’s impending labor problems and prevent them from doing so. found in a middle- income trap like Mexico or Brazil.
“The quality of people really matters in this post-industrial world,” Rozelle said. “If you don’t have a high school education, you don’t do well in selling online, you may not be able to start a business.”
Recent research that Rozelle has conducted shows early indications that the decline in births comes largely from rural areas of China mainly because women who do not feel that their families can support more than one or two children.
“My hypothesis is that the big drop in fertility has come basically from rural China in the last 10 years,” he told Al Jazeera. “Women now have much more decision-making power over critical decisions such as family size.”
China is currently implementing a major policy for rural revitalization across the country, but most is focused on agriculture and infrastructure programs, rather than education, health and social welfare.
Rozelle said surveys of rural households over the years found that while they appreciate many of these infrastructure upgrades, for the most part the priority comes down to one thing: education.
“Going where we don’t need large amounts of work to manage our companies, what we need is high quality work,” Rozelle said. “Should rural revitalization therefore include education? Absolutely. “