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The problem of the second child: inter-generational negotiations in Chinese families

Since January 2016, all Chinese couples have been allowed to have two children. This is the latest in a series of policy steps, implemented starting in 2013, that has basically been running down the so-called one-child policy in the face of mounting pressures from China’s steep fertility decline. The one-child policy, in effect from 1979, had initially been designed as a temporary measure to put a break on population growth during a time of extreme shortages of resources (Wang, Cai and Gu 2013). Even though the policy already had various alleviations that let people in some parts of the country have more than one child, during the reform-era decades of astounding economic growth, fertility continued to decline, reaching well below replacement level by the turn of the century (Wang, Gu and Cai 2016: 84). At that point, a team of Chinese demographers carried out a series of studies on the fertility decline, population aging, sex ratio, and related challenges. Their open appeals to end the one-child policy served as a basis for policy debates (Hvistendahl 2010). Various obstacles had to be overcome, some of them ideological, but also significantly, institutional. The enormous infrastructure that had been put to place to maintain and enforce the one-child policy had, during the past three decades, become a self-sustaining system and a locus of a myriad of vested interests (Hvistendahl 2010). Nevertheless, in October 2015 – some claim a decade too late – the universal two-child policy was announced. I will here discuss some of the implications of this new policy, the debates surrounding it, and how families negotiate the issue of the second child in my field site in Nanjing. Through an anthropological perspective that builds on broader scholarship about Chinese kinship, we can begin to understand how the complex politico-economic factors involved in the policy shift are negotiated by families who have differential access to social services, affordable healthcare and other care resources. I wish to point out something that has so far received little attention in the debates about the two-child policy. Namely, what is central to these negotiations is the broader context of inter-generational care needs and obligations, which can either posit the potential second child as a resource to the family or as a direct competitor of the elderly over the scarce care resources that are provided by working-age family members. Negotiations of this kind are essentially inter-generational, involve conflicting interests, and their power dynamics are influenced by a range of factors, including the mobility of family members and their relative contributions to the family economy at the time of decision-making.

Even though it is difficult to discern the rationale behind the two-child policy in its full complexity, some of its political and economic implications are clear. First, it has been a response to the “ageing of the population” crisis, which in China is simply referred to as 4-2-1. These numbers refer to each working-age person being potentially responsible for the care of two parents and four grandparents. While not providing an immediate solution, it is hoped that in the longer term the two-child policy will alleviate this problem. Increased fertility would also contribute to much needed rejuvenation of the aging workforce (Tian 2017) and boost China’s domestic consumption, which has been one of the main focuses of attention since the 2008 global economic crisis (Li, Willet and Zhang 2012; Yu 2009). As is often the case with policymaking, however, the potential consequences here are complex. For example, if the two-child policy reduces women’s participation in the labour market, this could actually damage economic growth. This is no small matter, considering that one of the significant achievements of the Communist era was to bring the level of women’s education and labour market participation up to that of men – a trend that largely continued during the three decades of the one child policy. In recent years, the official discourse has backtracked from the language of ‘women hold up half the sky’, and the encouragement of later marriages and childbirth, towards campaigning for the return of pro-natalist and conservative family values. Illustrative of this is the shift away from the later, longer, fewer campaign, which encouraged later marriage and fewer children at longer intervals. Educated women are now encouraged to marry early and to have their first child when they are still at college (Fincher 2018). As I have argued elsewhere (Kajanus 2015), there is a clear divergence between the familial roles of the daughter and the mother for the women who have grown up as the only child. The only children grow up as the centre of their family, as the sole focus of parental support and pressure. When they become parents themselves, the role of the father is much in line with his earlier upbringing, as father’s responsibilities revolve around his own achievements, such as career success and the ability to make money. Mother’s role, in contrast, is to focus on the education and well-being of the child, putting her own interests and development aside. While ideas about good fatherhood increasingly also emphasize strong affective bonds with the child (Li and Jankowiak 2016), the weight of parental responsibilities is still gendered. It is not surprising that the role of the sacrificing mother is less than appealing to many women who grew up as the only child. Recent survey results also show that the reproductive pressure in couple’s negotiations over having a second child comes from fathers, while women are more reluctant (Yue and Jin 2018). It remains to be seen how these dynamics evolve, as the government campaigns for women’s return to more traditional familial roles.

Almost from the outset, the two-child policy has had little impact on fertility rates. After a moderate increase in 2016, the rates continued to fall in 2017 and 2018 (Leng 2019). It seems that the two-child policy is not about to produce the hoped-for baby boom and there have been widespread media speculations about whether China might be scrapping the family planning policies altogether in the near future. While this remains to be seen, other measures to boost the birth rate are being debated and implemented. One of the more controversial ones has been a “reproduction fund” to reward couples who have a second child, proposed by economists Liu Zhibiao and Zhang Ye from Nanjing University (Liu and Zhang 2018). In an editorial published in the Party-run newspaper Xinhua Daily on August 14, 2018, Liu and Zhang proposed mandatory savings into a reproduction fund from all individuals under the age of 40, which could be claimed as maternal subsidy – at the birth of a second child. The government would be able to use the fund to subsidize other families, and if a person never had a second child, their savings would be released at retirement. The article resulted in a public controversy over its discriminatory pro-natalist implications and the added financial pressure it would place on the working-age population, i.e. on people who already have their resources spread thin by the 4-2-1 situation in which they find themselves.

In recent years, the broader trend in Chinese biopolitics seems to have been shifting from the use of restrictions to the use of incentives. One example of this are the urbanization policies, which have moved from the focus on controlling the movement of rural populations, preventing them from permanently settling in cities, towards more varied strategies of complementary restrictions and incentives. While the largest cities still practice selective migration policies, many provincial cities are now offering incentives for working-age residents to settle and raise their families in the city. In family planning, the same shift can be observed, while both punitive and incentivizing measures are being used. Though they may seem a far cry from the involuntary sterilizations and abortions of the early one-child era, the current pro-natal measures that for example make obtaining an abortion more complicated for married women (Huang 2019) are still highly interventionist forms of reproductive control.

In the midst of all of this, families are making real decisions about whether or not to have the second child. While it is important to understand the macro-level politico-economic implications of the policy shift, we need to also look at these processes of decision-making in families, to understand what is at stake. Families must negotiate various needs and obligations that are in part shaped by cultural ideas of familial care, and in part by various circumstances such as migration and access to affordable healthcare and pensions. I will next offer a glimpse into these processes as they unfold in one community in the outskirts of Nanjing.

I have carried out research on child development, family life and education in this semi-rural working-class community since 2014. When I returned for a two-month visit during the winter of 2018, everyone was talking about the second child. The 40 or so families I work most closely with all have a child now entering middle school. Most of the parents are in their thirties, and feel some urgency when it comes to the decision about the second child. Almost invariably, grandparents have some input in these conversations. During my visit, I had the opportunity to discuss the issue of the second child and to follow the negotiations in many of the families. By sharing two stories – the reflections of the Yao family who already have two children (having given birth to the second one before the new policy was introduced), and the ongoing negotiations of the Li family – I hope to illustrate some of the dynamics that weigh on these decisions.

As noted above, much of what is at stake revolves around issues of care. The giving and receiving of care in Chinese families has traditionally worked on cyclical and patrilineal principles, i.e. where parents would provide care for their children, and sons would pay back this debt by providing care for them as they got older – a daughter-in-law performing much of it in practice – while their daughters would transfer their caring responsibilities over to their parents-in-law (Stafford 2000).  While the one-child policy disrupted the patrilineal logic, ideas about the moral obligation to pay back the dept of care incurred in childhood through the care of the elderly are still widely held in China. Therefore, whether we are considering the transformation of elderly care in the 4-2-1 situation, or family decisions over having the second child, it is helpful to look at the entire cycle of exchanges in the family, i.e. in order to understand how its flows and disruptions influence decisions at different points of the life-course. In labour migrant families these considerations are particularly pressing, as the restrictions on mobility and access to social services render people especially reliant on inter-generational family support to find flexible solutions for the care of the elderly and of children.

This was also clear in decisions about the second child, which involved negotiating divergent needs and interests. Some grandparents were very much in favour of the second child. This was hardly surprising, considering that their generation grew up in large families that upheld the ideal of patrilineal continuity and stressed the obligation of sons to provide for the elderly as well as the ancestors.

This was the case in the Yao family. The family includes the husband Yao and wife Cuilu, their sons and Yao’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma. The family had been allowed to have two children under one of the exceptions to the one-child policy, and their sons were 9 and 11-years-old at the time of my visit. Quite unusually, the entire family moved to Nanjing together, from one of the surrounding rural prefectures. Initially, all the adult members of the household worked at the local factories, but after the children were born, both Cuilu and Grandma stayed at home to care for them. Cuilu returned to work soon, while the older couple returned to their home village with the children. This is a common practice with young children whose parents come from rural areas. Soon after early infancy, the children go to the village with the grandparents, while the parents stay in the city to work. If the family finances allow, the mother often stays in the village with her in-laws and the child for a period of time. It is then common for the child to return to the city at pre-school or school-age, if the parents are able to arrange a place in a school near where they work. Also, the Yao boys and the grandparents returned to the city when the older son reached school age. As the policy change was still very recent, having two children close in age made the Yao family very unusual in the community. Cuilu recounted this decision to me:

AK: Very few families have two children. Was this your decision, that you definitely want to have two children?

Cuilu: Originally not. Our household includes Grandpa and Grandma as well as us. We hadn’t thought about giving birth to him. In other words, to have a second child. But then I just unexpectedly fell pregnant. And we were very young, so Grandpa and Grandma were also still quite young. Our idea was to get rid of it, simply not have it, just get an abortion. But then Grandpa and Grandma said: ‘Just carry on with the pregnancy, have the child. Then the son will not be so lonely, the family will be livelier, he will have someone to play with and do things with.’ At the time we were quite young, I was only 23 when I gave birth to the second one, so I didn’t really have my own opinions. So when they said just leave it, I just went along, I thought: just leave it then. Didn’t think about it too much, I just carelessly gave birth. But now I’ve become aware that one child and two children are just not the same in economic terms. And in terms of energy, it’s really not the same. We must invest more economically and invest more energy to nurture them. Because these days, having a child is not like when we were children, when it was enough to just make sure they didn’t go hungry or cold, and that was it.

Yao family’s collective decision to have the second child was contingent on the dynamics of power that relate to the life-course. At the time of the negotiation, the young couple was still just that, very young, while the older couple was in their late 40s, economically significant contributing members of the household and therefore exerted considerable influence. With age, the economic contribution of the elderly wanes, as does their power. Apart from this power dynamic in decision-making, there was also another way in which age mattered. That is, in terms of the ability to perform childcare and household chores. As part of the negotiation, I was told, the older couple assured that they would take care of both children, while the young couple could go out to work. By the time of my fieldwork, Grandpa and Grandma were both retired, but still significantly contributed to childcare and household chores. They were responsible for school pick-ups, cooking, washing and cleaning, while the parents worked and often stayed out late with their friends. The retirement also gave some freedom of movement between the home village and the city, and the grandparents sometimes took turns to stay in the village for extended periods of time.

In the Yao family, the old model of cyclical exchanges of family care works. First of all, the old couple has two sons, Yao and his brother. The presence of working-age sons can be reassuring in the low-income labour migrant families, who often have little or no pensions. In addition, co-residence and the relatively young age and good health of the older couple made the care resources of the family abundant. In this situation, having a second child did not come with the presumption about competition for care resources. The opposite was true in the Li family, whose situation differed from the Yao’s in terms of age and life-course stage at the time of decision-making; and the mobility of the different members of the household.

The Li family includes the married couple, Li and his wife Xiao Zheng, and their 11-year-old daughter, who all live in Nanjing. Li and Xiao Zheng got married in their home village, before migrating to the city, and the grandparents of both sides still reside there. After their daughter was born, Xiao Zheng has mostly taken care of the child herself, except for a period of about two years that she spent in the village with Li’s parents. The family visits the grandparents once or twice a year during the national holidays. Li is the only child of his family, while Xiao Zheng has an older brother who lives in an extended household with their parents. In this situation, the principles of care exchange are relatively straightforward. Li and Xiao Zheng have the primary responsibility over the care of Li’s parents, not of Xiao Zheng’s parents, because she has a brother who lives with them. I stayed with the Li family in Nanjing, and we travelled to their home village for Spring Festival. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, the question of the second child was constantly on the table. Most nights, while waiting for Li to return home for dinner, Xiao Zheng and I would sit in the kitchen, and I would listen as she repeatedly went over her plans to improve the family’s situation taking on challenges one by one, to eventually buy an apartment, to save money to pay the for their daughter’s education, and to prepare for the time when she would have to go to the village to care for Li’s parents, whose health was deteriorating. The trouble was that Li had different plans. Instead of saving for an apartment he wanted to buy a second car, and what is worse, he wanted to have a second child. Xiao Zheng was adamantly against it, and so were Li’s parents.

During the Spring Festival, a large group of relatives, friends and neighbours were recruited to talk Li out of this idea. People came to him one by one, saying what a bad and shortsighted idea it would be to have a second child. Grandma went off on long laments about the hardship and trouble she had endured when taking care of her granddaughter, while also tending the fields. With her own ailing health, it would be too hard to take care of a young child in the village. Moving to the city to care for the child was not an appealing option either. As Ellen Oxfeld (2005) has noted in her work with Chinese migrant families in Calcutta and Toronto, mobility often causes a shift in inter-generational power dynamics. When the grandparents follow their children to the city they become highly dependent on their children, lacking local networks, experience and knowledge, and in terms of power dynamics, can fall into a position similar to that of domestic help. This is drastically different from their position of strength in the traditional patrilocal arrangement, in which the new daughter-in-law becomes part of the already established household in the village.

The Li family’s Grandad steered away from these heated discussions. In fact, he rarely emerged from his private bedroom, where he ate his meals alone watching television. But despite this apparent lack of power in the negotiations, in the end he played a role in turning Li’s head. Suffering from diabetes and other health problems, Li and Xiao Zheng were already spending a significant amount annually on his medical care, and these expenses were expected to keep increasing, as it became clear during our visit that his health was rapidly deteriorating. In the face of this financial pressure, and the prospect of losing Xiao Zheng’s income when she would have to give up work to care for the parents-in-law, Li gave up on the idea of the second child.

To highlight the differences that shaped the negotiations in the families of Li and Yao, first, the negotiations in the two families took place at different points of the life-course. When the Yao family made their decision, the grandparents were economically contributing members of the household, holding significant power in decision-making. The young couple were still at the receiving end of the cycle of care exchanges, and could therefore rely on the help of the grandparents. In this situation, the second child was not a competitor over scarce care resources, but a resource for the family. In the Li family, the grandparents were already almost completely economically dependent on the younger couple. Finally, mobility plays an important role in the inter-generational power dynamics. The grandparents of the Yao family had migrated to the city at the same time with the young couple, and had the skills, networks and the experience that gave them the ability to move flexibly and independently between Nanjing and their home village. Li’s parents, in contrast, lacked this independence and mobility, which further weakened their position.

It is clear that Chinese families have not jumped on the two-child bandwagon without reservations. In the community where I do my research, the reasons behind this reluctance are multiple and sometimes contradictory between different family members who are involved in the decision-making process. Studies of the children born during one-child policy have pointed to the far-reaching effects of not having to compete with siblings over parental investment (Fong 2004; Kajanus 2015). Lifting the one-child restriction does not only bring back the question of how parental resources will be distributed among siblings. The previous decades of fertility decline have brought about the new situation of 4-2-1, and it follows that children may now be competing over care resources not only with siblings, but also with the elderly. This is all the more significant considering the complex inter-generational power dynamics in contemporary China, as the grandparents still often weigh in on family decisions and rely on their children for old-age care, but no longer hold the position of power that they used to in an extended patrilocal household.


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