When several provinces in China announced plans to offer an extended mandatory maternity leave late last year, their target audience was less than pleased. Instead of embracing the new policy, many Chinese women expressed anger.
“Unequal leave days for child-raising for men and women, squeezing the space women have at work, what stage is this in The Handmaid’s Tale?” asked one woman on Chinese social media platform Douban, referring to the book and US TV show that tells the fate of women who live in a totalitarian society in which their designated role is to birth children for the state.
“Every word screams ‘leave the workplace, women,'” wrote another internet user.
Women’s frustration with the policy is an illustration of the dilemma China faces. Last year, just 10.6 million babies were born in China, a number only slightly larger than the number of deaths. The workforce is already declining as the number of people over 60 balloons. Economic growth has long provided an important justification for the country’s one-party rule, but this demographic imbalance risks stalling China’s efforts to become a more affluent country.
China is responding by refocusing energies once devoted to reducing births, to incentivizing more of them. But Beijing is up against an increasingly feminist female population whose individual dreams may clash with the state’s reproductive goals.
Chen Shu, a Chinese government worker in her late 20s who asked to use a pseudonym, said she once imagined getting married and having two kids, but changed her mind after exposure to feminist ideas at university led her to think more deeply about the difficult trade-offs such a path would mean.
“They will restrain you in a big, invisible cage, and it is only when you try to venture out of it you can find the many boundaries it has,” she told Quartz.
“The government treats workers, while companies pay the bill”
China’s cabinet acknowledged last year that it needs to support births in the form of better benefits, job security for women, and more affordable childcare and education.
As part of this shift, in November, a dozen regional governments including those in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hubei province, significantly expanded their maternity leave benefits. New mothers in those regions can now take at least five months of paid leave, compared to the 98-day state-mandated benefit. The affluent Zhejiang province, home to tech giants like Alibaba, has expanded the benefit to six months for women who are having a second or third child. One province is even considering a year-long maternity leave.
But women in their 20s and 30s fear that these expanded maternity benefits will make employers even more suspicious of hiring or promoting. Though Chinese laws mandate equal rights in the workplace, in reality, women often get asked about their marital status and their plans to have children. “With the extended leave, job opportunities are set to be reduced significantly [for women],” said Li Maizi, a Chinese feminist activist who was one of the country’s “Feminist Five,” five women who were detained in 2015 for planning a demonstration against sexual harassment.
China has a maternity insurance program to which companies contribute for their employees. But it only pays women the average salary at their company or the region in which they live for the standard 98-day leave. Oftentimes, companies must directly cover pay for any additional leave, as well as the salary costs of temporary hires, a situation described in the media as “the government treats workers, while companies pay the bills.”
It is also common for companies, and even government departments, to openly say they prefer male employees. Around 35% of 5,800 government job listings in 2020 indicated “men preferred,” according to Chinese media the Paper.cn. Although women, in theory, can bring their complaints to courts or labor arbitration boards, it is often difficult for them to prove discrimination occurred.
“It’s resource-consuming to use the legal system, and it’s very hard to win—unless your employer is foolish enough to discriminate against you in writing,” said Darius Longarino, a senior fellow of the Paul Tsai China Center. It’s also hard to get administrative agencies to punish misbehaving companies. “The government will talk to the company that has gender-based discriminatory job adverts and ask them to take it down…It’s only if the companies refuse to do it they get fined. Which to me means like, you have a free first shot, you can wait till you get caught,” he said.
Though they can’t prove it, many women believe stagnation at work has to do with being perceived as being on a path to motherhood—especially as state messaging around this issue permeates society.
Chen, the government worker, said she was initially assigned to do administrative tasks, but fought for and got the opportunity to work at an important branch, where she was the only female staffer. Just as she was looking forward to better job prospects, earlier this year she was suddenly transferred to a much less important role in a department mostly composed of women. Chen said she was given no explanation for the transfer by her supervisor, but knows from interactions with colleagues that many believe more challenging tasks are better suited to men.
“I originally thought I managed to resist the existing gender order by doing things that people think are too difficult for women to do,” said Chen, who is not married. “But now I’ve been told to do a much less important job…people assume I need easier tasks so I can have time to give birth to and raise children.”
China’s history of controlling women’s wombs
Women have good reason to be wary of China’s pro-natalist shift.
To a large extent, women in China have already lived a version of The Handmaid’s Tale after the less coercive family planning campaigns of the 1970s gave way to the one-child policy by 1980. The new population policy coincided with the end of the political tumult of the Cultural Revolution, and the start of sweeping economic reforms that transformed the country.
“The one-child policy came at a time when the Chinese Communist Party leadership was trying to regain its political legitimacy after the Cultural Revolution, and the place that they found for legitimacy this time was economic development,” said Yun Zhou, assistant professor in sociology at the University of Michigan.
The limit was linked to a per capita GDP goal—$1,000 by the year 2000—set by economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, wrote Mei Fong in her nonfiction book One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. “Working backward, population planners calculated that China could not reach this goal with a two-child policy, she wrote.
But the harsh measures used to enforce the policy, such as forced abortions, left deep wounds on generations of Chinese women. In at least one province, according to a Hong Kong documentary, some women were made to abort even their first, legally allowed child, to drive down overall birth numbers.
The one-child policy also led to long-term negative consequences, due to parents’ preference for a son. Tens of millions of female babies are estimated to have gone “missing” from the Chinese population due to abortions and infanticide. Even in 2021, for every 100 female babies born, there were 111 male babies born, according to the Xinhua news agency, compared to the historical global norm of 105 baby boys to 100 girls. This has deepened the problem of low births since the number of women of reproductive age is steadily dwindling.
China’s fertility rate is now at around 1.5 children per woman, a rate that will lead its population to decline by tens of millions of people in this century.
A “new fertility culture”
In 1992, China officially stipulated that women have the right to not have children. This year, China’s family planning agency said it aims to build a “new marriage and fertility culture,” which includes the “reshaping of parenting in multi-child families.” It also seeks to reduce “non-medical” abortions and “intervene” in abortions for unmarried people, setting off fears that the state will increase controls on a health service that was previously under relatively light supervision.
Meanwhile, the new maternity benefits hammer home the message that it is women who must be the primary caregiver while men can continue to focus on their careers; in the regions increasing maternity leave, paternity leave remains between 7 to 30 days.
“It is rather a way to force women to go back to families,” said Lydia Lin, a China-based feminist blogger whose five accounts once had a combined 570,000 followers for her posts arguing that women give children their own last names, and focus on work instead of marriage. Women “should carefully consider the price they have to pay for giving birth,” said Lin.
And while the government is promising to make it easier to have children by addressing social imbalances between men and women, it has heavily clamped down on feminists’ own advocacy, including China’s homegrown #MeToo efforts, and ramped up censorship of feminist discussions. Lin’s own accounts were shut down after anti-feminist bloggers reported her for “spreading hatred.” In spite of this, more individualistic forms of feminism thinking are finding a following, such as South Korea’s 6B4T movement that rejects marriage and children entirely.
It will be an uphill battle for China’s government to reverse the views of the many only female children who grew up under the one-child policy and see it as the norm—one that allowed their mothers to work and shape China’s economic rise.
“No matter what policies the country pushes through, such as maternity leave or third child, it can’t stop the generation of women who were born as the only child of the family from becoming more independent,” said Maizi, the formerly detained activist. “Embracing the liberation of women is a global trend, which China also can’t escape. It is like a box—once you open it, you can never shut it.”