Zhang Lijia

China’s authorities first raised the number of allowed children from two to three per family, and might now even cancel all restrictions. Journalist Zhang Lijia, author of Lotus: A Novel(January 2017) on prostitution in China, looks at the troubled relationship between feminism and motherhood in her mother country, in an interview with the Italian publication Il Manifesto.

Il Manifesto:

Let’s start with the news: what has been the reaction of Chinese civil society to the third-child policy?

Overall, the reaction has been less than enthusiastic. The news has been met with puzzlement, cynicism, derision and even anger.

After all, this new family planning guideline doesn’t require that couples have three children, it only allows them to. So how do you explain this level of discontent?

Yes, that’s true. Married couples can have three children, but they are not required to. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand the discontent: young Chinese couples are in such economic and material conditions that they simply cannot think of supporting three children. Many are already struggling with one child; or can’t even afford to have one at all. Only wealthy families can afford three children, and in this situation, many are feeling frustrated. Others are finding it hard to swallow that the government limited the number of births until a few years ago, and is now encouraging having more children without offering any practical support. The prevailing sentiment is that the authorities have bypassed the views of the citizens on this issue.

It seems that today, many young Chinese people, especially young women, are less and less enthusiastic about the idea of having children. Where does this reluctance come from? 

First of all, life in China today is expensive, and raising a child is expensive as well, especially when you consider the cost of education. Even though education is compulsory and free for nine years, parents, especially in large urban centers, are competing to enroll their children in additional classes and extracurricular activities, such as piano and English lessons.

Another problem is the limited availability of early childcare facilities. It is estimated that only 0.5 percent of children ages 0 to 3 are able to go to preschool. Young couples are forced to rely on their parents or hire babysitters, incurring extra costs. The trend of not having children is driven by women: mainly professionals, who live in cities and are highly educated, because they have more to lose and because they have become more assertive with the internet and contact with international developments.

Many are hesitant about having children because of sexism in the labor market. In fact, some Chinese companies are refusing to hire women of childbearing age, or firing them if they become pregnant. I’ve heard stories of women who had to pledge they won’t have children as a precondition for employment. To address this issue, in 2019 the government barred employers from asking women if they are married or have children during job interviews. Their intentions were good, but the concrete results have been insufficient, to say the least.

For women who have risen into managerial positions, there is also the concern that having children will jeopardize their careers. The fact that there is a hostile environment toward working mothers in many workplaces has deterred many women from motherhood. It should also be noted that people’s attitudes toward procreation have changed dramatically. It used to be considered part of filial duties. An ancient Chinese saying goes, “Of the three actions that betray filial piety, the worst is not having children.” Few of today’s young people, many of whom are only children focused on self-fulfillment, see having children as a duty.

There has also been a lot of talk lately about some women embracing the principles associated with “6B4T,” a movement that expresses a radical rejection of marriage and motherhood. What is it about and what needs does it express?

6B4T is a feminist movement that originated in South Korea in 2019 and which brings together women determined to exclude men from their lives, thus rejecting the roles of wives and mothers, which have their origin in patriarchy. The “6 Bs” and “4 Ts” consist of not having romantic or sexual relationships with men; not marrying or having children; not buying misogynistic products; rejecting beauty standards and the hyper-sexualization of women in the culture industry; and offering help to other single women.

Like their Korean sisters, some Chinese women have rejected marriage and motherhood. The reason is that because of their roles as wives and mothers, they are not being treated the same as men, but also that they no longer see marriage or motherhood as necessary conditions for happiness. From what I understand, some of the followers of 6B4T are LGBTQ+ persons, but not all. In some cases, I think they are just women who are disappointed or traumatized by their experiences with men. They are mostly young, urban, and educated.

More at Il Manifesto.

Zhang Lijia is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need her at your (online) meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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