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The Politic Blog

Chinese Ovaries, Again

For Chinese couples, having a child isn’t just family business—it’s also state business. With the infamous one-child policy only in recent memory, a new proposal designed to encourage couples to have more children by implementing what has been dubbed a “childless tax” has incited warranted public outcry.

Chinese scholars published a proposal in August titled, “Boosting fertility: a new task for China’s population development in the New Era,” which proposed a comprehensive plan to address China’s growing concerns of their quickly aging population and workforce paired with faltering birth rates, as well as a considerable gender gap due to the previous one-child policy.

The proposal was published in Xinhua Daily, a government-backed Chinese newspaper, and was co-authored by finance and economics professors Hu Jiye, from the China University of Political Science and Law, Liu Zhibiao and Zhang Ye, both from Nanjing University. The most controversial passage, regarding the maternity fund, is translated from Chinese below:

“It is stipulated that citizens under the age of 40, regardless of gender, must pay a maternity fund at a certain percentage of their salary each year and enter their personal accounts. When the family has a second child or above, they can apply for the withdrawal of the maternity fund and receive a maternity allowance to compensate the short-term income loss caused by the interruption of labor during the growing period of women and their families. If the citizen has not given birth to two children, the account funds will be taken out when they are retired.”

This 180 degree turnaround shocked and angered citizens, but the trends leading up to it were clear. The cost of raising just one child is steadily increasing, and the proposal recognized the need for government financial support for a maternal fund system. This new proposed birth fund is not as overtly egregious as the forced abortions and sterilizations during the era of the one-child policy, but an additional tax for people not producing the right amount of babies to please the state naturally caused extreme backlash. Policies like these can be counterproductive, creating more ill feelings towards the government than any desired result.

China’s unique history and population demographics are factors that contributed to the intense public outcry. Yale professor Caroline Merrifield, a lecturer in East Asian Studies who specializes in Chinese culture, described in an interview, “What’s really different in China than other [countries] is just the sheer number of people involved who are under the jurisdiction of this vast state, and then the kind of power of this state to exact compliance from people. [The one-child policy] is still in really recent memory and then to have the state policy flip around and be pronatalist is really shocking and upsetting to people. The point is that mechanism is there, that the state could potentially enforce this. So it’s not just suggesting, its about the intense ability to intervene in people’s personal lives.”

Furthermore, a bigger question surrounds the potential effectiveness of the proposal. There is not a conclusive way to test the policy’s effect on the entire country, and China can learn a lesson from the failed one-child policy that caused many problems in the first place that the birth fund now aims to reverse. Esther Chan, a PhD candidate in the Yale sociology department, related the maternity fund proposal to biopolitics.

“There are other strains of research and other theorists who talk about biopolitics, [which is] basically the way that the government polices bodies,” Chan said. “This is something that might be interesting to relate to the way that the government is trying to police reproduction, whether that’s in promoting certain kinds of reproduction.”

It is unclear whether a maternity fund would even affect couples considering having children. Those who could already afford to have two or more children will do so, and those who were already planning not to have more children would not be convinced to make that commitment merely due to a maternity fund provided by the government, as Merrifield pointed out. Many factors besides money push couples to choose not to have children—from prioritizing careers to simply not wanting kids. That said, the Chinese government may consider more effective and universally acceptable policies in issues such as housing, education and maternity leave. Other factors such as income inequality and regional differences between urban and rural areas may drastically vary the outcomes of any government policy.

Indeed, the published proposal mentioned many of these topics in addition to the maternity fund, perhaps indicating a step in the right direction. The housing crisis in especially urban areas of China is a pressing problem, and the increase of affordable and quality housing could support the birth rate. However, the scholars’ approach to an issue worth examining remains questionable. They suggest: “For long-term rental housing, priority is given to second- or multi-child families; three-year rental subsidies for low-income second- or multi-child families, or mortgage discounts, etc.” A related problem may be the current schooling system in China. The education of children has escalated into an extremely intense and time consuming process due to the rise of “tiger moms” and elite elementary, middle, and high schools with competitive admission. These central schools cause nearby housing prices to skyrocket based solely on location related to schools.

Another crucial consideration for Chinese women is maternity leave, as well as support for working mothers. The intense time and financial commitment of a child could be a major hindrance to young couples trying to further their professional careers. Whether they are expected to remain in the traditional domestic sphere or they are facing a hostile, sexist work environment, women are getting crunched on both sides.

“Even [for] women who are not planning to get pregnant, there is a lot of old-school belief that women are just waiting to leave [work] and get pregnant,” Merrifield said. “There’s a suspicion that as a woman you are not going to be able to do as good of a job as a man because you’re not as reliable. That’s a huge issue.”

It is also worth examining the role of WeChat, a Chinese social media giant, in creating and sharing the public sentiment regarding the proposal. It was, after all only an article and had not been implemented. Wechat has become a way for Chinese citizens to discuss politics, Merrifield said.

“[The proposal] is the kind of thing that might not have caught so many people’s attentions if everyone were not literally on WeChat every second of every day,” Merrifield said. “Information circulates a lot more quickly and a lot more widely than it might otherwise. Even the idea that people are tagging this as a “singles tax” or a “no child tax”…this language isn’t coming out of the article itself, that comes from people circulating and interpreting it among their networks. I don’t know if people being infuriated on WeChat is ever going to shut down a government policy, but I think its a place to see public opinion operating in a very strong way.”

Merrifield’s own studies focused on food in China, and she sees a possible parallel between this public outcry and the 2008 Chinese milk scandal, a widespread food safety incident involving harmful chemicals found in infant formula. The immense backlash of citizens and other countries forced the Chinese government to prioritize food safety as a state concern, Merrifield said.

“I wonder if this issue of tax policy gained enough steam that it could be considered in a similar way,” Merrifield said. “Demographic change could be reframed by the state as a matter of national security and once they do that other kinds of resources get brought to bear on it.” Though the maternity fund was the obvious point of controversy, this proposal was thoroughly thought out by university scholars and does indeed address real issues and their roots in China’s demographics. However, Chinese citizens are in need of comprehensive reforms of housing, education and maternity support, not tax manipulation designed to exact the “right” number of children from Chinese couples.