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A chance to be fruitful

China’s new three-child policy won’t reverse China’s demographic crisis, but it helps Christians seeking to be fruitful and multiply

A father plays with his two children on the outskirts of Shanghai, China. Aly Song/Reuters/Newscom

A chance to be fruitful

Esther Chen is an anomaly in the large urban city in China where she lives: She and her husband have four children, ages 6 months to 10 years. Strangers are astonished to hear that they have so many kids when most people don’t even want a second child. Even Chen’s parents, who are not Christians, think it’s strange. But Chen (whose real name WORLD is concealing for her security) and others at her house church believe children are a blessing and thank God for them.

Chen’s situation is so rare that she’s never met another family with four kids. She’s heard of several but has never seen them in person. While she and her husband did not plan their third and fourth children, she says: “God gave us this most precious heritage and we’ve accepted it. Sometimes when we’re exhausted, we think about what life would be like if we only had two children. … But the fact is we have two more precious children, so it’s worth it.”

Chen’s view of children runs counter to China’s culture, yet it also happens to align with the Chinese government’s current push to have more children. After decades of strict family planning measures, China is now facing a demographic crisis: Its rapidly aging population is bringing economic and social upheaval. In an effort to combat the shrinking birthrate, the Chinese government first relaxed its one-child policy to allow all families two children in 2016. Then in mid-August, the National People’s Congress passed the three-child policy.

Yet most Chinese women balk at having more children: Raising children is expensive and all-consuming. A hyper-competitive education system requires families to pay for after-school tutoring and extracurriculars just so that their children can have a chance at success. And 35 years of propaganda espousing the values of one-child families has also become ingrained in the Chinese psyche.

“That would be too much of a burden,” Ma Mei, a Wenzhou mother of one told Sixth Tone about having a third child. “It’s too hard. I still want to live my life.”

To encourage families to have more babies, the government is trying to rein in the behemoth after-school tutoring industry to level the playing field. Some regions give subsidies to families with more children, while others are making it more difficult for women to get abortions. Yet these measures are unlikely to fix China’s demographic issues, which one expert believes are much worse than the government realizes due to inflated official numbers.

Still the three-child policy is a godsend for Christians who want to have more children. Chen said she knows many women in her church who are now seriously considering having a third child.

A man plays Chinese chess with his grandson at a park in Beijing.

A man plays Chinese chess with his grandson at a park in Beijing. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT established the barbaric one-child policy in 1979, fearing overpopulation. Strict enforcement in some regions led to forced abortions, forced sterilizations, massive fines, or the loss of jobs. Some families hid their extra children while others abandoned their baby girls in hopes of a chance to have a son. Still others lived in rural areas where the rules were more lax and still had large families. The one-child policy was never a blanket law: Ethnic minorities were allowed two children, rural families who had a girl as a first child could have two children, and families that lost a child in natural disasters could have a second child. In its wake, the policy has left a shrinking workforce caring for a ballooning elderly population and a gender imbalance leaving millions of men as unmarried “bare branches.”

The Chinese government began to slowly roll back the policy after seeing its economic consequences. Projections show that by 2040, 24 percent of the population will be over age 65, a rate higher than the United States and more than twice that of India. The growing number of seniors requires medical care and pension payments, which a smaller workforce must shoulder. So in 2014, the government allowed couples to have a second child if one of the parents was an only child. Then two years later, the state allowed all citizens to have a second child.

The two-child policy only briefly increased the number of births before they dropped to historic lows. China’s 2020 census, released in May, showed the slowest population growth in decades. Ning Jizhe, head of the National Bureau of Statistics, said 12 million babies were born, a drop from 18 million in 2016, and that China had a total fertility rate (the average number of children born to a woman over her lifetime) of 1.3, much lower than the replacement level of 2.1.

Ning noted the lower fertility rate was a natural result of China’s economic and social development. Other developed East Asian countries, including Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea, have some of the world’s lowest birthrates as women prioritize education and careers over getting married and having children.

YET YI FUXIAN, a senior scientist of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes the true extent of China’s demographic crisis is much worse than the country’s leaders even know. For the past 20 years, Yi has studied China’s demographic trends. He calculated China’s real population in 2020 is less than 1.28 billion, a full 130 million less than the official numbers. That would make India the most populous country in the world.

He said officials inflated the fertility rate in order to continue justifying family planning policies: National planning officials adjusted the fertility rate in 2000 from 1.2 to 1.8 and “fixed” the rate in 2010 and 2015 as well. They based their adjustments on primary school enrollment numbers, but Yi said those numbers are themselves inflated as local officials claim subsidies for each student at their schools. Local media have reported on such fraud.

Other numbers—including the number of births in hospitals and of household registrations (hukou)—are also inflated to line local officials’ pockets. In the province of Chongqing, the health department announced an average of 14,300 births from January to May 2019, but the number surged to more than 66,800 in June to meet government expectations.

With so much political posturing, the Chinese government itself doesn’t know its population size, Yi said. He argues that China’s economy will never overtake the United States because of its problematic age distribution, a direct result of China’s family planning policies.

That argument, which Yi also made to The New York Times in 2016, got Yi on China’s blacklist after several years enveloped in Beijing’s embrace. Yi’s complicated relationship with China’s leadership represents how the country has gone back and forth on how to deal with its demographic problems without admitting wrongdoing for its family planning policies.

When Yi published his book Big Country With an Empty Nest in Hong Kong in 2007, mainland China quickly banned it. But the publishing arm of the Development Research Center of the State Council (China’s top leadership) published the second edition in 2013, and it raced up book lists. The state-backed publisher eagerly agreed to publish his next two books.

But Yi got on the bad side of the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) for calling the Chinese government to end population control completely. He predicted a two-child policy would only raise the fertility rate to 1.4 before it falls to 1.0 in 2026. The NHFPC prevented his new books from being published and came up with its own prediction: A two-child policy would cause the fertility rate to peak at 2.09 in 2018 and drop to 1.72 in 2050.

Chinese officials invited Yi to speak on a panel at the 2016 Boao Forum for Asia, a gathering of who’s who in China, including politicians, businessmen, and journalists. Then came his Times interview, which put Yi out of favor again: The government banned his 2013 book again and shut down his social media accounts. But Yi continued to speak out. He co-wrote a report saying China’s population declined in 2018 after having only 10 million births (the official tally was 15 million). The next year, censors erased hundreds of his articles from the internet, and state media called his findings rumors.

Yi sees the three-child policy as too little too late. If Taiwan, which never had any family planning policies and provides generous subsidies to encourage births, has the world’s lowest fertility rate of 1.07, what chance does China have?

A teacher instructs students at an after-school robot club in Hefei, China.

A teacher instructs students at an after-school robot club in Hefei, China. Zhou Mu/Xinhua via Getty Images

ONE OF THE MAIN REASONS Chinese women—especially in top-tier cities—don’t want more children is the enormous financial and physical toll of the cut-throat education system. On average, Chinese parents spend between 25 and 50 percent of their incomes on after-school classes: tutoring in math and language, sports practice, piano lessons, and even jump-roping. They shuttle kids from activity to activity and can’t fathom fitting another child in.

To compete with peers, students must do well on the gaokao, the national college exam, and stand out to universities against a crowded field. The most extreme parents follow jiwa or chicken parenting styles, in reference to a belief that an injection of chicken blood gives people more energy. They spend time in chat groups with other parents comparing the best tutors and schools.

The State Council views jiwa parenting as antithetical to its goal of encouraging couples to have more children, so officials are trying to decrease the pressure the only way they know how: greater control and regulation. In July, the State Council released new educational policies to reduce student’s homework and curb the hours spent in after-school programs.

Under the new rules, private educational companies must register as nonprofits, no new tutoring firms can register, and all online education platforms need to reregister.

After the crackdown, stocks for education companies plunged on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and the government fined 13 after-school tutoring companies more than $5.6 million for “false and exaggerated advertisement” and “price fraud.” (As with all government crackdowns, the pressure pushes the groups underground. Instead of branding themselves tutors, they claim to be nannies or providing housekeeping and child care services.)

A soccer coach trains players in Shandong province.

A soccer coach trains players in Shandong province. STR/AFP via Getty Images

SOME CHRISTIANS have already taken their children out of the education system. Instead they’ve enrolled them in schools run by their churches, which are unregistered and unrecognized by China’s Ministry of Education, making it difficult for students to pursue higher education in China.

Chen sends her two older children to a school her house church established. To help larger families, the school charges full tuition for the first child and half tuition for the second child, and allows the rest of a family’s children to attend for free. Many of the church members live in the same apartment complex, so their kids play together rather than attend endless extracurriculars.

As a former teacher, Chen saw firsthand the problems in the competitive test-based school system. She said the knowledge learned “has no value for their lives.” Taking her daughter out of school was a leap of faith since unregistered schools could shut down at any time. Still, Chen believes it was the best choice: “The church school is really teaching kids to know God. Most importantly, it keeps them in the faith, and through learning about the faith, they will have a correct understanding of their life.”

Chen and her husband had their second child while the one-child policy was still in effect but didn’t have to pay fines for the extra birth and had no trouble getting her household registration. The same happened for their third and fourth children. “It was God’s provision. He knew that if that problem wasn’t resolved, it’d be a great difficulty for us.”

Another woman from her church, Joyce Wu, is currently 6 months pregnant with her third child. Wu said she and her husband had always wanted two children, but their views shifted after they began attending a Reformed house church and heard the pastor preach about children as a blessing.

At her former church, she felt secular views still dominated: Children were seen as inconvenient, they tied women down and prevented them from making money. But now, she’s a stay-at-home mom, like most of the women in her church. She gave birth to their second child in 2017, a year after the two-child policy took effect. Today her 10-year-old daughter attends the church school, which her son will attend in a year. As we spoke on the phone, her son would occasionally pipe up with a question before continuing to play quietly.

Her goals for her children are also foreign to others in her city. Instead of attending a top university, she hopes they will consider serving in the church or teaching at other church schools in China. If they want to attend college, she’d either send them to a Christian school overseas or hope her church has started a college by then.

Yi believes religion could play an important role in reversing the demographic trend in China. He sees Confucianism as having similar demographic benefits as Christianity because “they think older people and babies are also part of civilization.” Whereas in today’s China, “Everything is for yourself so you don’t want to have babies.”

Family planning by force

China’s demographic crisis has surprisingly led the government to align with pro-life groups as some provinces have banned abortions after 14 weeks. In September, the Chinese government released guidelines saying it aimed to reduce abortions for “non-medical reasons.”

Yet many fear the Chinese government’s desperation for more manpower may push it even further, to coercing women to have more children. A 2018 article in the government mouthpiece People’s Daily stated “the birth of a baby is not only a matter of the family itself, but also a state affair.”

But the government’s desire for citizens to have more babies doesn’t include Uyghurs in Xinjiang. According to a report by researcher Adrian Zenz, the Chinese government is trying to slash the Uyghur birthrate through forced sterilizations, IUD implantations, and abortions. The campaign has been effective: Between 2017 and 2019, the birthrate in Xinjiang dropped by 48 percent. —J.C.

June Cheng

June is a reporter for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and covers East Asia, including China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.



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