China: Desperately Seeking Daughters

China's one-child policy is broken. After years of public grumbling, international scandals over forced sterilization and government tinkering, that's a truth of which most Chinese are aware. So when a senior official announced two weeks ago that Beijing was considering scrapping the policy, it didn't come as a complete surprise. Speaking at a press briefing in Beijing, Zhao Baige, vice minister of China's National Population and Family Planning Commission, cautioned that she couldn't say exactly what changes the government would make, or when. But she did make one thing clear: that Beijing knows the policy doesn't work any longer, and it needs to be rethought. "This has become a big issue among [China's] decision makers," she explained.

It's no wonder. After almost 30 years in force, China's unpopular one-child rule—though it was never as strict as usually portrayed—has distorted the population in a manner that threatens China's future. Coupled with the tumultuous impact of rising wealth, the policy has reshaped families in a number of unintended ways. It has limited the number of children available to care for parents in a rapidly aging society in which the state provides few services. The one-child rule also has turned China's traditional bias for sons into a motivation to screen out girls, yielding a population heavily overweight with men. Beijing knows full well these trends won't produce the "harmonious society" that is its official goal, and so it has begun tweaking its policies anew. But tweaks may not be enough.

The most pressing problem is a breakdown of filial piety, the sense of loyalty and shame that drove generations past to protect their elders no matter the cost. Chinese experts say the nation of only-children is increasingly self-centered, more and more inclined to abandon old obligations. Drawn to the booming big cities, many young people are also throwing themselves into the newly rich urban lifestyle (and helping to save for retirement) by opting to have no children themselves.

Those left behind are being forced to adapt. Most strikingly, many Chinese parents are now even reconsidering their long-held prejudice for sons, on the new assumption that daughters are more likely to grow into loyal caregivers. In a striking recent online survey, a thin majority of Chinese said they would now rather have girls than boys. Aged Chinese, meanwhile, are scrambling to find new ways to care for themselves, including private insurance programs and more-bizarre measures like "kid for hire" systems.

The government is seeking creative solutions of its own. Recognizing that the breakdown in filial piety is likely irreversible, it is moving to create a nationwide system of home care for the elderly—in part because it's still considered shameful to send mom or dad to a nursing home. Of course, the simplest fix would be to free people to have more kids, and in some cities, officials are doing just that. But since the 1980s, when the state routinely conducted forced sterilizations, Chinese authorities have largely lost the will and capacity to enforce family-planning policies. Beijing is also still fearful of setting off an uncontrolled population boom. Thus no sooner had Zhao said the one-child policy was being reconsidered than Prime Minister Wen Jiabao tried to squelch the news, insisting no change was in store. "We will adhere to the current policy of family planning [and] keep the birthrate low," he told the National People's Congress last week.

But the changes underway are too big to contain. The problem of a rapidly aging population is common to prospering nations worldwide—but it's made more complicated in China by the impact of its family-planning policies. As China has developed, life expectancy has shot upward, from younger than 50 in 1949 to older than 72 today. The elderly (over 60) share of the population has grown, from 10 percent in 2000 to 11.3 percent in 2006. Though China's Constitution says children must support their parents, many now neglect them. That's partly because the offspring of one-child families are "more likely to be spoiled and self-centered," says Cai Feng, a demographer. But the result is that, as of 2005, 42 percent of Chinese families consisted of an old couple living alone, according to government statistics. In some cities, that figure is now more than 56 percent—comparable to the United States, where aid and the elder-care infrastructure are more comprehensive.

For centuries, a healthy Chinese brood dominated by male children was considered the best form of social security. It still is in many rural areas, where boys can work the fields alongside their parents and won't transfer their earning potential to their in-laws after they marry. After the one-child policy was implemented in 1979, such sentiments led many Chinese parents to do whatever they could (including resorting to female infanticide and selective abortions) to make sure they had boys. As a result, the male-to-female birth ratio in China today is about 1.18 to 1, as opposed to the standard ratio of 1.03–1.07 to 1.

In China's modernizing cities, however, many young couples now recognize that daughters are better caregivers. "Girls are more thoughtful," says Feng Xiaotian, a sociologist at Nanjing University. Not for nothing are girls known in Chinese slang as tie sheng xiao mian ao, or "a thin padded jacket," owing to their perceived ability to provide parents convenience and warmth. As a result, an online survey conducted by the China Youth Daily in early 2007 among 2,603 people from 29 provinces and cities found that more respondents would now choose to have a daughter (29 percent) than a son (28.4 percent). This change hasn't shown up in national birth statistics yet, and the sample set wasn't entirely representative (since Chinese who participate in Web surveys tend to be more liberal and well educated than average). But the numbers represent a stunning shift all the same.

Many Chinese who are too old to bear daughters of their own, meanwhile, are finding other ways to acquire them. Adopting adult children—which was common in feudal times—is becoming prevalent, says Nanjing University's Feng. Take Wu Shaoqiu and his wife, a retired couple living in the central city of Wuhan. After their kids immigrated to the West, they decided they needed "someone to stay and talk" with them, says Wu, 75. So in 2006, he attended a meeting, cosponsored by the city government and a local newspaper, where lonely elderly couples were introduced to prospective adult "daughters." There he met Fang Fang, an executive, whom he brought home to meet his wife. "She brought flowers [and] called me 'Papa' and my wife 'Mummy'," Wu says. Fang Fang soon joined the family—as did two other women she brought along. On weekends and holidays, all three women, who are in their 40s and married, now visit the couple to cook and clean, and maybe play cards or surf the Web.

Wu and his wife never offered any financial compensation to the women; he says they're happy to act as surrogate children "for the good of society." But in other cases, the terms are more explicit. Tian Zhendong, a retired construction expert, also in Wuhan, says he and his wife felt "lonely and lost" after his son moved to Canada. So he published an ad titled "Elderly couple desperately seeking daughter," promising successful applicants would inherit the couple's apartment. To his surprise, 100 people applied, though the couple abandoned the talent search after their son objected.

Attacking things from the other side, the Chinese government has been trying to quietly liberalize the one-child regime for decades. Since the policy's introduction, rural families, who make up more than 60 percent of the population, have been allowed to have a second child if their first was a girl, and ethnic minorities have been allowed to have two or more kids. And since 2000, provincial governments have allowed only-children who married other only-children a second child as well, to prevent what's known as the "8-4-2-1" syndrome, where a single couple has to support four parents and eight grandparents. Authorities in wealthy cities such as Guangzhou and Beijing have begun publicly urging only-children couples to take advantage of this exception.

Yet finding takers is proving complicated. Many young Chinese urbanites, like yuppies everywhere, don't want more than one kid; some don't want any. A Beijing survey late last year revealed that 52 percent of adult single children didn't want to have more than one child, and more than a quarter said they preferred the DINK lifestyle: double income, no kids. That's a big problem for a city with an estimated 2 million only-child adults.

The answer, says Hou Yafei, an expert of the Beijing institute that conducted the survey, is for the government to make it clearer that only-children couples can now have two kids without incurring the draconian fines of the past. But financial problems will linger. Many of the survey respondents explained their aversion to larger families by pointing to economics. Fang Meiqin, 30, a telecom analyst who is expecting a baby in about four months, spoke for many of her generation when she recounted with horror media reports that said that raising a child through college could cost about $422,000. Fang, a Beijing resident, laid out just how expensive it is to bring up baby these days. She figured she would have to budget $1,400 for annual living expenses, $8,440 to $14,000 for primary education and $7,035 for six years of middle school. Tutoring would cost extra.

Beijing could help defray these costs. But it has its own reasons to be cautious. The stop-and-go course of family-planning reform reflects lingering fears of instability in a population already 1.3 billion strong. Many officials still remember what happened in 1983, when public discussions of changes in family-planning regulations led to a reported 30 million extra births that year and the following one. With the population now growing by 8 million to 10 million annually, Beijing is determined to retain some control lest its hard-won economic gains be undone by a rampant population boom.

The less troublesome fix is to offer parents new aid to support them in old age, rather than new incentives to have kids. One key reason the one-child policy is so contentious in the first place is that China lacks an adequate social safety net—an abiding irony in a supposedly communist country. To address this gap, last year authorities introduced a social-security scheme for farmers and a new program of rural medical cooperatives. Residents who choose to participate in the medical cooperative program now pay 10 yuan (about $1.50) annually for access to local clinics and partially subsidized hospital stays. "In the past, when a farmer was ill or needed an operation, the whole family would go bankrupt," says Prof. Wu Changping, a prominent expert on population and aging at Renmin University.

Caring for the elderly remains a huge challenge. Less than 1.2 percent of China's retirees have access to nursing homes, compared to 8 percent in developed countries. And packing parents off to a nursing home is still seen as shameful. The government also lacks adequate facilities, funding and staff. China required 1.8 million nurses to care for its elderly in 2006, and that figure is slated to mushroom to 6.5 million by 2020, according to the China National Committee on Aging (CNCA).

As an alternative, Beijing is now trying to promote home-care services for the elderly. In late February, CNCA unveiled plans to complete by 2010 a nationwide home-care system that would offer things like house calls by health professionals, meals-on-wheels and volunteers who help with household chores. Of course, nothing beats having your kids around to do the job. But until China finally resolves to scrap its dysfunctional birth-control policies, that's unlikely to be an option.

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