China announced today (May 31) that it will allow married couples to have up to three children, a further relaxation of population restrictions after it abandoned the one-child policy in 2015 due to its shrinking birth rate. But the Chinese internet quickly—and overwhelmingly—vetoed the new proposal.
A top comment under state-run news agency Xinhua’s post about the new policy simply said “Bah!” It was liked nearly 80,000 times.
The decision came out of a Politburo meeting chaired by Chinese president Xi Jinping at which the country’s top decision-making body decided the new policy would ”improve the structure of China’s population, implement the national strategy of actively responding to the aging population, and maintaining China’s human resource advantages,” according to Xinhua. A hashtag about the news was viewed over 1.7 billion times on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, within hours of the announcement. The government hasn’t said when the policy will take effect.
The move highlights the Communist Party’s deep worries about the country’s declining birthrate. Census figures show only 12 million babies were born in 2020 in China, the lowest level since 1961. Meanwhile, China is set to have over 300 million people aged 60 or above by 2025, according to the government, meaning the gap between those contributing to the pension system and those withdrawing from it will keep getting wider.
But the new policy is unlikely to be any more successful than the previous move to a two-child policy.
After a brief bump, the earlier relaxation couldn’t reverse the country’s shrinking births. That’s because China’s birthrate reflects systemic issues—including the difficult of paying for top-notch education and the unequal burden of childcare that falls on women. As a result, having more than one child—or even one—is out of reach for many young people today.
“Honestly, what people need are substantial benefits such as subsidies [for having children], not those superficial encouragements. People don’t want to have children not because the absence of a three-children policy, but because we can’t afford it,” wrote a user on Weibo.
A comment that was upvoted nearly 200,000 times urged the government to provide “the most fundamental maternity welfare and solve the unfair treatment women face at the workplace for giving birth.”
Both comments, and several other similar critical posts, quickly disappeared. Instead, the comments section under the Xinhua post has been filled with more positive responses, including “we passionately support the country’s new policy!”
Officials nodded to the broader concerns in today’s decision, saying that China should develop an inclusive childcare service system, and provide a range of high-quality educational resources to reduce costs for families. The Party also vowed to improve the maternity leave and insurance system, housing affordability, and protect the rights of women at the workplace, where employers often discriminate against women in hiring because of worries they’ll take maternity leave.
But these, of course, are hard to change quickly, and require funding. As a result Beijing keeps trying top-down ways of addressing the problem and issuing new policies, including setting up special economical wedding zones to crack down on bride prices and address a related issue: the plunging marriage rate.
Some Chinese youngsters are responding to the pressure of finding their footing at work and in life by adopting a philosophy of “lying flat“—which advocates opting out of the never-ending rat race and making minimal effort in life, including giving up on having children or forming a family.
“We don’t even have time to date anyone, how could we have time to have children? 996 is the best birth control, don’t they understand?” said one comment, referring to work hours of 9am-9pm six days a week that many employers demand. “Increasing the birth rate cannot be achieved by relaxing control on having children, but by giving people the time to have relationships and live a good life!”
A poem titled “The life of a leek”—a slang word that refers to naive people exploited by scams—that made the rounds today sums up the collective feeling of fatigue that met today’s announcement.
give birth to three children
while taking care of four elderly
go to work at 8am
sign off at 9pm
make 10 times the effort
to pay off a mortgage of millions