China's Century Babies

The rumor started circulating last December: babies born just past the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, would win prizes, perks, even a "passport" from the World Health Organization. Soon the notion of having what the media dubbed a Century Baby took off. "My husband and I got the idea from our teacher, who said, 'Why not jump on the bandwagon?' " says Ms. Sang, 30, a Beijing Yuppie who asked that only her surname be published. "At first we thought, 'What fun!' "

That's what a lot of people thought. But officials of the WHO do not issue passports and were not terribly amused. The prospect of a sudden baby boom would hardly advance their efforts to control the global population. Even as they denied the rumors, promoters around the world came forward with real offers. Millennium babies will win a car from a newspaper in Russia, and 100 francs from local authorities in France. Couples from Beijing to Paris are already aware that the best time to conceive a Y2K kid is on or about April 9--an evening the British press has dubbed "bonk night." Only in China, what started as a silly rumor has put superstitious parents on a collision course with officials, who fear that even one hyperfertile night could end up overwhelming delivery rooms, crowding schools and generally aggravating the burdens of the world's largest population.

The downside didn't occur to Beijing right away. At first, state-run media reported the millennial mania as a cute fad. In December, the government's Health News reported cheerily on the "extraordinary excitement" among young couples who were hurrying to get married, and happily calculating when they should try for a child. The following month another newspaper printed advice on "How to Conceive a Century Baby," suggesting among other things that husbands should avoid "cigarettes, alcohol and hot tempers." By then, however, many parents were resorting to more desperate measures.

Indeed, as the eve of the millennium approaches, some Chinese are planning families more aggressively than the Communist Party. The political bosses have softened enforcement of the "one child" policy, first imposed in 1979 and implemented by workplace overseers who charted menstrual cycles and forced sterilization or abortion on women caught trying for a second child. These days Beijing emphasizes education, and allows rural parents to have a second child if the first is a daughter. It also does what it can to censure Chinese parents who have resorted to aborting, abandoning or killing baby girls to make sure they have a male heir. But by last month, the concern was that parents were turning the harsh legacy of family planning to a new, millennial end. The Beijing Youth Daily reported, for example, that a 27-year-old Beijing woman named Jiang Li had sought out an abortion so she could try again--this time for delivery on the morning of Jan. 1, 2000.

Soon the media were reporting new rushes on abortion clinics in one city or another. As the Century Baby fad hopscotched across China, it was driven by the mix of fresh rumors with traditional faith in astrology, which teaches that some birth days, months and years are more auspicious than others. The most recent outbreak of the mania came in early February in the coastal city of Wenzhou, where an unusually high number of hopeful Century Moms lined up for abortions, according to the Guangzhou Daily. "We Chinese have a national weakness for fads and trendy beliefs, especially in the south," says Prof. Qu Chuanyan, a women's health specialist at Beijing's Medical Sciences University, who is concerned about mayhem in delivery rooms come Jan. 1.

Qu has heard of such troubles before. In the era of reform, she says, Chinese authorities no longer suppress superstitions as they once did, and "people are using new scientific techniques to pursue old beliefs." Parents use sonograms to detect the sex of their child--and to abort the girls. Fortune-tellers stake out gynecology clinics, offering to forecast the destiny of unborn children with the help of a computer program. Qu has heard of mothers flooding hospitals to demand Caesarean sections on a particularly auspicious day. In one case, she says, a 50-year-old stroke victim died in a provincial hospital because the surgical theater was swamped with C-sections. "Let that be a warning. Lucky times and holidays are the worst time to be in the hospital," says Qu, warning that on Jan. 1, 2000, "if too many pregnant women flood into emergency rooms to give birth to Century Babies, it'll be chaos." And, while most Chinese hospitals aren't computerized yet, what if those that are get hit by blackouts and equipment failure as a result of the Y2K computer bug? "Just imagine!" says Qu.

The authorities did just that, and didn't like what they saw. With less than half the farmland and over four times more people than the United States, China's population is still growing by 13 million each year. Now, the state media are playing up the danger of the Century Baby fad in a nation already short of land to feed its people. "If too many babies are born at the same time, they'll face great competition for school and job placement," says Dr. Huang Xinghua of Beijing's Gynecology and Obstetrics Hospital. "Experts predict a baby boom in the year 2000," reported China Women's News of Beijing, urging couples to "consider the risks ... and think three times before forging ahead."

Hopeful parents may in fact be hedging their bets, but not necessarily in response to official warnings. Chinese fertility experts have already calculated that, worldwide, only 13 true Century Babies will be born right after midnight on the millennium. "So the chance of success is tiny. My patients are realistic; only a very small number are hoping for a Century Baby," said Dr. Huang. "Besides, with so many time zones and hospitals involved worldwide, who can verify whether you've had a true Century Baby or not?"

Unfortunately for China's family planners, midnight on Jan. 1 is not the last or best opportunity for superstitious mothers. The most auspicious of 12 lunar cycles in the Chinese zodiac is the Dragon, and the next Year of the Dragon commences on Feb. 5, 2000. Instead of trying to bear a child on Jan. 1, 2000, in the middlingly favorable Year of the Rabbit, many Chinese couples are now expected to try for a "Dragon Baby." "The Year of the Rabbit is not a great year--so why risk it?" said one WHO official. "Especially since the Year of the Dragon is the best for having babies."

What could promise a brighter future than a millennial Dragon Baby? A millennial marriage, with a Dragon Baby, too. Plans for weddings at midnight on Jan. 1 are well advanced in various Chinese cities, including ceremonies that will unite 2,000 couples in Beijing and 5,000 in Shenzhen. Chinese entrepreneurs see "immense commercial opportunities" in these mass weddings, according to Securities Times online, which noted that one firm has registered the name "millennium wedding destiny" for a line of cigarettes, clothing and souvenirs. Promoters declare that a "thousand-jubilation dragon year" such as the one coming up won't happen again for 3,000 years.

That's a lot of joy for one small generation of babies to endure. Already, as a result of the one-child policy, kids in China are often smothered by the undivided love of two parents and four grandparents. This much-lamented "little emperor" syndrome was on vivid display during last week's Lunar New Year festival, when city parks teemed with both boys and girls prettied up with rouge on their cheeks. It seems inevitable that children born at the same time next year will be even more hopelessly spoiled, as little millennium celebrities. Ms. Sang, for one, says that after toying with the "fun" of the idea, she rejected it. "Finally we decided against having a Century Baby," confessed Sang. "We have a dog and a cat already, and we're exhausted just caring for them." That's just fine by Beijing, where the party line is now the fewer Century Babies, the better.