More Motherhood, Fewer Freedoms in China?

China's shift to a two-child policy could have some unintended negative consequences for the nation's women.

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For more than 30 years, China enforced a strict one-child policy in urban areas in an attempt to curb population growth. In 2016, this was replaced with a universal two-child policy, meaning all couples now have the option of having a second child.

Although this policy is a positive step, and is expected to alleviate some of China’s population problems (including rapid aging, skewed sex ratios, and a shrinking workforce), research suggests that without appropriate policies and welfare supports, the new policy could negatively affect women’s status and gender equality, rather than improve it.

Under the universal two-child policy, decisions about whether to have a second child are more dynamic, flexible and subject to negotiation between spouses, explains lead author Yue Qian, assistant professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia. But, as with any negotiation, the results tend to fall in favour of whoever holds the balance of power.

Qian and her colleague Yongai Jin, from Renmin University of China, are investigating how marital power dynamics influence family planning negotiations and women’s intentions to have a second child.

Their findings suggest that women in urban China with lower relative income, resources, and education than their partners have less marital power and autonomy when it comes to family planning. As a result, they are more likely to be pressured into having a second child even if they do not want one. Although less susceptible, the study confirms that women with more equal status to their partners also feel pressured to have another child.

To compound this pressure, the Chinese government no longer provides welfare benefits and earnings of mothers increasingly lag behind those of fathers. This perpetuates a vicious cycle, where a woman’s disadvantaged status in the labour market diminishes the economic resources she can bring to the family, reducing her marital power and her ability to decide when to stop having children. This in turn can jeopardize a woman’s career and her ability to choose her own path.

Even in countries with family-friendly policies, a woman’s reproductive decisions are never solely her own and can still disadvantage her in the world of work. However, supports such as childcare subsidies or publicly funded kindergartens go some way to lessen the disadvantages arising from childbearing.

In the era of the universal two-child policy, reinstating welfare benefits and policies aimed at reducing the gender pay gap and promoting gender equality in China could help women take greater control of their reproductive decisions.

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Amy Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise