“Having a Second Kid Isn’t as Simple as Adding Another Pair of Chopsticks”

China Loosens Family Planning Rules but Many Chinese Avoid Having Second Children

When China loosened its family planning rules a year ago in November, allowing more couples to have a second child, it was big news. It marked the biggest reform of China's strict family planning rules—which limited most urban couples to one child and rural families to two if their first was a girl—in three decades. And naturally, there were expectations of a baby boom.

But the numbers are in and, so far, there hasn't even been a boomlet. Zhao Yanpei, a senior official with China's National Health and Family Planning Commission, told reporters at a November 5 press conference in Beijing that only six percent of the 11 million couples newly eligible for a second child have applied for a second birth permit. While some had predicted that between one million and two million couples would jump at the chance to have a second child, so far only 700,000 have started the required paperwork to have baby No. 2. Zhao said the figure "really falls short of our expectations." In a country where many have chafed for decades under the government's one-child policy, many found it puzzling that there weren't more people jumping at the chance to exercise their new reproductive freedom.

Zhao said the lack of interest might simply reflect time needed for planning a second conception in many families. He said it might take several years before the "true effects of the policy changes" are visible. "It takes time for couples to make preparations for a new baby, so even if they decide they want one, they have to wait until the time is right," he said. But informal surveys this week also found that many were just not interested in having more kids. China's state-run news service Xinhua published an article November 10 with the headline: "Why aren't we seeing the expected baby boom?" The news agency said it had sent reporters fanning out in four provinces to ask why eligible couples were hesitating.

The respondents fell into three general categories: those afraid to have a second kid, those who don't want to, and those who just can't decide. Among the "afraid" group was a 32-year-old IT worker in the rust belt city of Shenyang in northeast China who said he thought it would be too expensive to have a second child. "It's easy to have another one, but it's hard to raise them," said the man who was only identified by his surname, Zhang. Another man, surnamed Wang from Yantai, a coastal city in eastern China's Shandong province, said it would be too exhausting to have another child and he was perfectly happy to just have his daughter. He was in the "don't want" camp. Wang also told Xinhua he didn't see anything wrong with raising an only child. "Our generation is all only children, and we're doing just fine," he said. Representing the undecided camp was Wan Yan, a 36-year-old university lecturer who said she felt she was probably too old for a second child but hadn't ruled it out yet. "If we can't give the second child the best of everything, it would be very hard to commit to having another one," she said.

Also on November 10, the state-run media outlet Shenzhen Evening News ran a piece titled: "Three women, one voice: Having a second child is hard." It profiled mothers with small children who already had a permit for a second child but weren't sure they wanted to get pregnant again. One was quoted as saying "having a second kid isn't as simple as adding another pair of chopsticks" to the dinner table. Their concerns were similar to those voiced by the parents in the Xinhua article: Second children are expensive and exhausting.

China introduced the one-child policy in 1979—a few years after the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, who had rejected birth limits because he believed the more people China had, the stronger it would be as a nation. But Deng Xiaoping, who ruled China for most of the 1980s and 1990s, prioritized prosperity, and realized that achieving higher GDP per capita would be easier if there were fewer "capita," or people.

The latest tweak of the family planning rules mainly affects urban couples. Whereas before, if both parents were raised as only children, they were allowed to have two kids themselves. Under the revised rules, a couple with just one parent who was raised an only child can have two kids. Many rural couples won't qualify for this exemption since many have siblings under the rural exemptions. (The roughly eight percent of China's population classified as minorities have long been allowed to have two and sometimes three children.) But since most of those who are newly eligible to have a second child are living in big cities, many have noted that financial pressures are likely to weigh heavy on their mind. Chinese urbanites are dealing with high rent and intimidated by the additional costs of nannies, after-school activities, cars, food, clothes, and other expenses that multiply quickly.

Last November, Cai Yong, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a fellow at the Carolina Population Center, a population study center, said he didn't expect a big baby boom because of the new policy. But even he is surprised by the low level of interest in second babies that China is now showing. He told Foreign Policy that the numbers point to a "fundamental shift" in Chinese attitudes towards child-rearing. In the past, Chinese people had children to perpetuate their family line and as a form of insurance so they would have someone to care for them in old age. Cai said those ideas are fading away and Chinese are increasingly thinking about how to give themselves and their offspring the best possible life. He said many are asking: "Would I or my family be better off if we just raised one good child instead of two or three?"

China's population, though currently still growing every year, is projected to start shrinking in a little over 10 years. In 100 years, if current fertility rates hold steady, and depending on mortality trends, China's current population of 1.3 billion people could be reduced to around 800 million people. While many people consider a smaller population ideal for economic and environmental reasons, experts worry that China is growing too old too fast, and has too few young people. The size of China's labor force has already begun to decline. A graying society is less able to power the factories that have fueled China's manufacturing boom and could lack the innovation necessary to keep the economy humming.

Because of these and other concerns, there has been wide speculation that China could do away with the one-child policy altogether—and the 2013 loosening the rules was a trial balloon to see how the public would react. On October 17, Cai Fang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government think tank, told Bloomberg that China would likely have a two-child policy within two years. But Zhao and other government officials have said repeatedly there is no timetable for scrapping the one-child rule.

Cai said the underwhelming response shows that even if China were to scrap its family planning limits altogether, there would likely be no population surge. Cai pointed to low fertility in Taiwan and Japan and said China was headed in the same direction, with many people waiting longer to marry and waiting longer to have children. He added, "when people postpone too long, they get comfortable with their lifestyle and they give up" on the idea of kids.