China is on the cusp of a demographic shift that will profoundly transform its society and economy—and that has the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) deeply worried. The country has a massive and growing cohort of older people, and it is not “replacing” that aging population with anything close to the number of young people it needs to maintain its overall size, foster prosperity, and care for its citizens. In the coming three decades, the proportion of the Chinese population that is working age—that is, between the ages of 15 and 64—will drop from around 70 percent of the total to just under 60 percent. In 2019, for every working-age person in China, there were 0.42 dependents younger than 15 or older than 64. By 2050, there will be 0.67 dependents for every working-age person—an increase of 60 percent.

This stark reality stands in the way of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” of rising standards of living and growing Chinese power and influence in the world. That is why, in late 2015, the CCP announced the end of the one-child policy that had been formalized in 1979, at a time when the party feared that a rapidly growing population would outstrip China’s still-nascent development. Just over three decades later, the opposite problem emerged, and the one-child policy gave way to a two-child policy.

It didn’t work: after rising slightly between 2015 and 2016, the annual number of births in China has fallen every year since. The release of this data has come to resemble official announcements about natural disasters: carefully orchestrated, timed, and worded to minimize any sense of panic. Then, early this summer, the government announced yet another overhaul: a three-child policy. There is every reason to think, however, that Chinese society will react to this new change just as it reacted to the last one: with a collective shrug.

The simple truth is that far too few Chinese women of childbearing age want to have more than one child. The irony is that this preference for smaller families is partly the result of China’s economic progress, which has created a world of professional opportunities for women that would have been unimaginable in the 1980s. The trouble is that although China needs more babies, the CCP also needs women to continue to participate in the labor force and, more broadly, in the economy. In American terms, the CCP wants Chinese women to “have it all.” To put it mildly, however, the party has not figured out how to help them do that.

In a multiyear research project, I have conducted ongoing interviews with a group of 82 Chinese women from across the socioeconomic spectrum, between the ages of 30 and 37. None of them have any siblings; they are products of the one-child policy and the country that it made. What emerges from in-depth conversations with them is the extent to which the CCP has ignored the crucial role they play in shaping China’s future and how the party has neglected to take steps that could help reverse the country’s demographic decline: putting more women in leadership positions, preventing discrimination against women in the workplace, making quality childcare more affordable, and accepting that a preference for smaller families is unlikely to fade—which will probably make it necessary to raise the age at which people become eligible for government-funded pensions, in order to avoid a disastrous decline in the size of the labor force.

The CCP’s failure to take such steps reflects the sexism that persists in the party and, arguably, in Chinese society more broadly. At the very least, the CCP suffers from a massive blind spot when it comes to women, who are grossly underrepresented in the party leadership. Women hold just 8.4 percent of leadership positions at the central and provincial levels. Among the young party leaders who will take the reins in the coming decades, only 11 percent are women. If the CCP wants to solve China’s demographic puzzle, it should start by listening to and empowering women—especially middle-class and upwardly mobile ones, whose preferences and choices it desperately needs to change. Doing so will help address China’s looming demographic catastrophe and would also shore up the CCP’s legitimacy among a constituency that will become ever more important in the coming decades.

“HAVING IT ALL” WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

Chinese women are central to the country’s economy. The participation rate of women in the labor force between 1990 and 2019 averaged 67 percent, higher than that of the United States (57 percent) and of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries combined (50 percent). In the last two decades, more and more women have entered white-collar professions. By 2010, around 50 percent of professional and high-skilled jobs were held by women, up from about 35 percent in 1982.

Chinese women are also big spenders. In 2019, China’s total household expenditure was $5.60 trillion, more than 70 percent of which went to education, health care, food, clothing, communications, and household goods and services—all expenses over which Chinese women, as household managers, have traditionally had either control or a great deal of influence. And Chinese women are not spending just for their families; they are also spending on themselves. The Chinese consumer markets for clothing, cosmetics, tourism, fashion, and luxury goods totaled more than $1.53 trillion in 2020, and women have become major drivers of growth in those sectors. Their spending power has also seeped into traditionally male-oriented sectors, such as cars and online games.

Driving these changes in the workforce and the consumer economy are the balinghou: the “post-’80s” generation of Chinese who are the rough equivalent of so-called Millennials in the West and who were born under the one-child policy. They are also the main targets of the CCP’s efforts to increase the fertility rate. This campaign, which led to the two-child and three-child policies, is not subtle. It involves directly exhorting citizens to have more children. For example, around the time the two-child policy was announced, the CCP’s official news outlet, the People’s Daily, ran a feature article titled “Having Children Is Not Only a Matter of Individual Families but Also a Matter of the Nation.” This slogan subsequently circulated throughout Chinese media.

In American terms, the CCP wants Chinese women to “have it all.”

The message is blunt: “Make more babies.” Unsurprisingly, it has fallen flat with its intended audience. Feizi Yu (a pseudonym, like all the names used in this article to refer to my research subjects) is a 34-year-old mother of one who recently ventured into a new career as a paralegal in Beijing. She struck a characteristic note: “My generation is very unlucky. We are the first cohort of the one-child policy. Now we are the mothers of the two-child policy. I think the government treats us like guinea pigs. The two-child policy is like tricking us into a deep hole. Then we have to climb up on our own.” Or, in the words of Yanqi Su, a 35-year-old senior manager at a large national bank in Shanghai, the changes to the one-child policy were nothing more than “a big con.”

Weiwei Yuan, a 37-year-old Shanghai-based senior journalist at a digital media platform and the mother of one, was undecided about whether to have a second child. Even though she believed that doing so would be good for her family, she worried that it would hurt her at work, where she was on track for a promotion. Her firm required all female employees to discuss their family planning with their line managers and to apply for a spot in the “pregnancy queue,” a common practice whereby employers seek to prevent multiple workers from taking maternity leave at the same time. Her performance was superb, but she was certain that she would be denied a promotion if she showed any hint of being pregnant. Moreover, she was still haunted by the painful and humiliating experience during her first pregnancy, when her supervisors gave her high-profile projects to male colleagues because of her pregnancy-related “diminished capacities,” despite the fact that she never slowed down. While pregnant, “I didn’t take a single day of sick leave and was even pulling longer hours,” she recalled. She cut short her maternity leave and rushed back to work but found herself effectively demoted; it took her nearly two years to climb back to the position she’d held prior to getting pregnant. She eventually decided not to have another child.

Weiwei’s experience is fairly typical. My respondents shared many similar stories of discriminatory practices targeting women of childbearing age. In addition to the “pregnancy queue,” they complained of being denied promotions owing to concerns about their family plans, supervisors making reference to their “diminished capacities” when they were pregnant, and employers’ unwillingness to consider any accommodations to workspaces or schedules that might make it easier for the mothers of infants to return to work.

GRANDMA TO THE RESCUE

The harm of the “motherhood penalty” is compounded by the childcare issues that working Chinese women face. When my interviewees talked about trying to find affordable and reliable childcare, they often used the word jiaolv, which has no clear English equivalent and refers to a dark psychological state of constant anxiety and worry. China’s public spending on early-childhood care has risen in recent years but remains relatively low, especially for a putatively socialist country, and surveys of urban families consistently show that high childcare costs are one of the main reasons they decide not to have a second child.

The wealthiest among working Chinese women can afford to outsource some of their childcare to an army of private providers: nannies, lactation consultants, nutritionists, sleep trainers, tutors, and private daycare centers and preschools. But turning to such options requires parents to overcome a deep distrust that pervades Chinese society in all matters relating to childcare, rooted in a steady stream of scandals regarding dangerous facilities and tainted products such as milk formula, diapers, and vaccines.

That is why even many relatively well-off Chinese women still tend to turn to their parents or in-laws for childcare support, with grandmothers shouldering a great deal of the burden. Yet that choice, too, can feed jiaolv, as many members of the balinghou generation feel their parents have already sacrificed enough for them. Zifei Liang, a 37-year-old mother of one, is a senior programmer and deputy head of the department of technology and innovation in a large state-owned enterprise in Beijing. Her firstborn was a girl, and for a few years she considered having a second child because her husband’s family were keen for a boy to “continue the bloodline.” Her sense of duty to her own parents, however, led her to abandon the idea. After her first child arrived, she struggled to balance childcare and career demands. Unable to pay for a nanny, Zifei called on her parents. Her mother retired early and relocated to Beijing to take care of all the childcare and domestic chores. Once a week, her father traveled around five hours from her hometown in Shanxi Province, staying in Beijing for two days before turning back. This assistance allowed her to keep up with a competitive career after motherhood. But it took a toll nonetheless.

“My parents sacrificed so much for me,” Zifei said. “They aged so much. My mom now has chronic back pain. I don’t have the heart to put them through it again. It’s too cruel.” The desire to have another child confronts women such as Zifei with a dilemma: How can one simultaneously be a good employee, a good wife, a good daughter, and a good citizen?

WHAT CAN THE PARTY DO?

There are four basic steps the CCP could take if it wanted to help women resolve this dilemma. The most important one would be to make a concerted effort to put women in party leadership positions at all levels of governance, particularly in roles relating to economic planning, finance, education, health, and welfare. Given the patriarchal nature of the CCP leadership, any such move would encounter stiff resistance. But the looming demographic crisis presents a make-or-break moment for the party to change its culture on gender.

Second, the government should make childcare more affordable by offering financial incentives to local governments that would encourage them to build new public daycare centers. At the same time, the CCP could also spur private-sector growth and professionalization in this area by building on its strong teacher training system and offering subsidies to private early-childhood training programs. Such steps would create new employment opportunities in the “care economy” and raise female employment rates more generally, thus enhancing tax revenues considerably. They would also boost the confidence of parents in public and private care providers. Most important, strengthening the care infrastructure would allow more mothers to work, making the most of their enormous productive potential.

If the CCP wants to solve China’s demographic puzzle, it should start by listening to and empowering women.

Third, if the government wants women to “have it all,” it must root out workplace discrimination against women of childbearing and childcaring age. It can do so by introducing comprehensive gender equality legislation and strengthening rules governing maternity leave and compensation. There is enormous public appetite for protecting women’s rights through such means.

Finally, in conjunction with those three steps, the CCP should gradually begin raising the age at which people can claim publicly funded pensions. Doing so will help maintain the size of the working population, which is bound to shrink no matter what reforms the government pursues. This would not be an immediately popular policy, but it would be a rational choice. It would work only if pursued in tandem with the other reforms, since Chinese retirees currently provide crucial childcare for their grandchildren. With the development of more accessible and affordable public childcare, public opinion might eventually lean toward acceptance of later retirement.

The CCP should see these steps as a way not only of addressing the looming demographic catastrophe and its economic consequences but also of securing its own legitimacy in the eyes of younger generations. Whatever its other attributes, the party’s model of authoritarian governance has delivered clear economic benefits to the vast majority of Chinese people. But if broad sections of the population come to feel that the CCP is allowing sexist and patriarchal attitudes to stand in the way of prosperity and opportunity, the ground might begin to shift beneath the party’s feet.

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  • YE LIU is Senior Lecturer in International Development at King’s College London.
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