China one-child policy: End of restrictions brings joy for some, but heartbreak for others

The state enforced its population control for 35 years, but for some women its demise comes too late

Simon Denyer
Beijing
Friday 13 November 2015 19:24
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Gao Yushuang with her daughter, Muti, eight
Gao Yushuang with her daughter, Muti, eight

She was supposed to be having an abortion. If she had a second child, the 39-year-old Chinese mother would lose her hard-earned job at a state-owned company. The date for the abortion last week was even marked on her calendar. Then, China announced it was about to abandon its one-child policy after 35 years.

For the mother, who asked to remain anonymous, the moment was “like a life-saving straw”. She said: “When I heard the announcement about the new two-child policy, I cried. My daughter came in and asked why I was crying, and I told her she was about to have a sister or a brother. She hugged me and cried with me.”

Faced with looming workforce shortages and a rapidly ageing population, China announced last month that all couples would be allowed to have two children. The one-child policy had extraordinarily far-reaching effects on Chinese society, and its relaxation marks a historic shift.

The government says 90 million women, half of them in their 40s, will be affected by the change, once the National People’s Congress approves a new law next year. But it has left many women agonising about the choices they made, and the choices ahead of them.

“The difficulty for women in employment will increase, and gender discrimination probably will be worse,” said Wang Pei’an, a spokesman for the National Health and Family Planning Commission. The stigma around larger families has been so strong that the 39-year-old woman never told her college classmates that she had a younger brother.

Gao Yushuang is another 39-year-old mother, with an eight-year-old girl. She had always wanted a second child, an urge so intense that she was ready to break the law. But eventually she decided her family could not afford a fine of up to £20,000 on top of the cost of raising a second child. She decided to stick with one.

When she heard on television that the policy was changing, her mother was on the phone even before the news report was finished. “She asked: ‘What are you waiting for? The policy has changed. You should respond to your country’s call.’” But Ms Gao was not so sure.

“If it had happened five years before, everything would have been different,” she said. “I would have been more energetic. My parents and in-laws would have been healthier, too. I definitely would have wanted a baby.”

Internet searches for pregnancy-related products surged on China’s online shopping platforms after the news broke last week, state media reported.

But for Ms Gao, the balance had shifted. Her parents could become sick at any time, and she thought she would lack the energy to look after and educate another young child. So she sat and wrote a journal for her future self to read, entitled “Why I don’t want a second child”.

“If one day my only child leaves me, and I am all alone, I will read the journal, and I will understand why I didn’t have a second child, and it will stop me suffering from regret,” she said. “My tears fell when I was writing. The feeling was complicated and bitter.”

© The Washington Post

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