China’s parents say life’s limits, not the One Child Policy, is why they stop at one

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You would think it’s the just the One Child Policy that maintains the high number of single-child families in China. But talking to parents, and studying the research, a very different story emerges.  It turns out that many people in China find the reality of second children just as impossible as anywhere else. Plus the common belief that stopping at one kid is the only way to ensure that child’s achievement in this land of fierce competition has made the policy a personal mandate, as well as a state one. Certainly, one can’t discount that decades of state propaganda pitching the virtues of only children has infiltrated the culture.  But when you look at the lives of Chinese citizens—what is economically feasible, what they have achieved, what their goals are for their personal futures and not just the future of the nation—there’s no doubt that state logic has become sound logic, propagandistic truth has become objective truth.  “People don’t want more—one is successful,” Xiaohong Ma tells me when we meet at her office at the Beijing Population Research Institute.  In Ma’s studies of why people have only children, sixty percent of people said that policy had nothing to do with their choice.

Like Ma’s Beijing survey, a study in Shanghai and surrounding areas found less than two percent of parents cite the policy as the reason they only have one child. Zhenzhen Zheng is a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who conducted the survey with demographers from Nanjing University, the Brookings Institution, and the University of North Carolina. She tells me that the study found that people said they wanted two children when the choice was theoretical, “but when they have to apply that choice to the realities of their family, they say one is enough.”

They cite the same concerns we do: the high prices of apartments, and how tough it is to pay for someone to look after the kid during long work hours.  “We ask them ‘how much money would be enough?’” Zhang says. “And they come up with a number that seems impossible to reach, no matter what their income, poor or rich.  They’ve decided this is the best choice for the success of the present.” She pauses thoughtfully and notes, “It’s amazing how it’s become totally normative here in a single generation.” Zhang says it’s not just a question of how little the state does to help with childcare or housing or eldercare—it’s that people have learned in a single generation, through a “stunning cohorting effect,” that stopping at one child allows them to be parents but also allows them the flexibility to do it on their own terms, and have a child who is better equipped to live up to ever-building expectations.

When I meet a young mother named Yanting at a packed Starbucks in Shanghai mall, she illustrates the stress of considering a second child.  She rushes in, harried, late, apologetic—a meeting ran late, her mother called with an issue about her son. “It’s too much.”  I can empathize.  Yanting has a degree in Chinese medicine but works in sales.  Her husband is a doctor. Four years ago, after her son was born, her parents, both factory workers from the countryside, moved into her two-bedroom, 325 square foot apartment; they sleep in her son’s room.  The social safety net here is still the family: grandparents care for children, children care for parents, and no one has a mind to change it.  “I can’t imagine having the time or money to have another child, and we’re actually doing well,” she tells me. “But I want to make sure my son has a graduate degree like I do.  And where would we put another?”  I find it impossible not to relate.



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