The World of Chinese - - Contents - - PHOEBE ZHANG

Men­cius once said, “The least fil­ial thing for a man is to have no sons.” Some Chi­nese, though, are re­think­ing what it means to be a fam­ily. As archaic laws and so­cial stigma slowly dis­ap­pear, even as sin­gle par­ent­hood, adop­tion, co­hab­i­ta­tion, LGBT and child­free life­styles, the state has tight­ened up di­vorce laws and pro­moted tra­di­tional par­ent­hood to pre­serve “so­cial har­mony”

Four gen­er­a­tions un­der one roof ? That’s so 1990s. The mod­ern fam­ily is a di­verse group— though not many can af­ford to f it grandma and the great- grand­kids in the same apart­ment. Per­haps that’s why some are choos­ing to be “Dou­ble In­come, No Kids,” or DINKS. Oth­ers want chil­dren, but not the has­sle that comes with a hus­band, while mar­riages of con­ve­nience be­tween same- sex lov­ing cou­ples help en­sure par­ents’ pre­cious lin­eage con­tin­ues. For all its di­ver­sity, China prefers its mod­ern fam­i­lies to be tra­di­tional. But, the times they are a- chang­ing…

The first thing Ya­tou did when she found out she was preg­nant was check whether she was al­lowed to be—un­til 2016, child­birth was only le­gal in China with a per­mit.

The pre­vi­ous year, a preg­nant Ya­tou (pseu­do­nym) had bro­ken up with her boyfriend, but rather than opt for an abor­tion—le­gal, cheaply and widely avail­able—the then-28-year-old de­cided to have the baby on her own. It was a de­ci­sion not ev­ery woman would have risked, and for good rea­son.

It’s a tough busi­ness be­ing a sin­gle mother in China. Tra­di­tion­ally, pre­mar­i­tal sex is frowned upon and sin­gle par­ents stig­ma­tized. But it’s not just be­ing os­tra­cized or gos­siped about: On a pol­icy level, there are ob­sta­cles as well.

For starters, the Min­istry of Health bans Chi­nese hos­pi­tals and agen­cies from of­fer­ing med­i­cal re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies, such as in-vitro fer­til­iza­tion (IVF), to sin­gle women and even cou­ples whose re­pro­duc­tive plans are in­con­sis­tent with China’s fam­ily plan­ning poli­cies.

The cur­rent Pop­u­la­tion and Fam­ily Plan­ning law dic­tates that, bar­ring some ex­cep­tions, a mar­ried het­ero­sex­ual cou­ple can have two chil­dren. Women not in com­pli­ance with th­ese pro­vi­sions (most com­monly, sin­gle fe­males or les­bian cou­ples) face a se­ries of hur­dles. Those who choose to brave the bu­reau­cracy must first face a heavy fine, known as a “so­cial com­pen­sa­tion fee.” The rules vary from prov­ince to prov­ince, or even city to city. In Beijing, for ex­am­ple, the “so­cial com­pen­sa­tion fee” is equiv­a­lent to the av­er­age an­nual in­come.

Next come ob­sta­cles re­gard­ing hukou, the house­hold reg­is­tra­tion sys­tem that re­stricts Chi­nese cit­i­zens to re­ceiv­ing so­cial benefits, such as ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, to their home­towns. Be­fore Jan­uary 14, 2016, pub­lic se­cu­rity bu­reaus would not is­sue a hukou with­out a legally regis­tered father. Since then, the law has changed, but the bu­reau­cratic ob­sta­cles can some­times ap­pear in­sur­mount­able, par­tic­u­larly for women of lower ed­u­ca­tion or in­come.

“The [ hukou pol­icy] vi­o­lates women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights and is es­sen­tially a de­fen­dant of mar­riage,” Fang Gang, pro­fes­sor of sex­ol­ogy at the Beijing Forestry Univer­sity, told TWOC. “Women should have in­de­pen­dent rights to de­cide whether they want chil­dren, even if they are sin­gle.”

Back in 2015, when Ya­tou made the de­ci­sion to keep her child, the rules were even stricter: Most hos­pi­tals re­quired par­ents to ap­ply for a birth per­mit be­fore de­liv­ery, and this needed both par­ents’ mar­riage li­censes. Wor­ried, Ya­tou called up for­mer class­mates, hop­ing to find some­one in


govern­ment who could pull some strings. A friend who worked in house­hold reg­is­tra­tion had good news: He­bei prov­ince, where Ya­tou’s par­ents live, had just ap­proved a new pol­icy that al­lowed un­mar­ried women to ap­ply for a new­born’s hukou.

There are no of­fi­cial statis­tics con­cern­ing sin­gle moth­ers in China—but the govern­ment is as con­cerned about pre­serv­ing “core so­cial­ist val­ues” as pro­mot­ing higher birth-rates to stave off an im­pend­ing de­mo­graphic cri­sis. De­spite grow­ing lib­eral at­ti­tudes and in­de­pen­dence among China’s wealth­ier women, it’s still not widely ac­cepted for a fe­male par­ent to have a baby on her own; Ya­tou didn’t know what to tell her own fam­ily.

The PRC’S at­ti­tude to gen­der equal­ity af­ter 1949 had been re­mark­ably pro­gres­sive, at least ini­tially: The eman­ci­pa­tion of sex work­ers, along with the in­tro­duc­tion of the 1951 Mar­riage Law, re­lieved mil­lions from life­long suf­fer­ing and sub­ju­ga­tion. The march of progress has suf­fered in re­cent decades, though, as pa­tri­ar­chal im­per­a­tives, fam­ily plan­ning poli­cies, and ram­pant ma­te­ri­al­ism have all as­serted them­selves in the mar­ket econ­omy.

In around 2000, state-af­fil­i­ated groups like the All-china Women’s Fed­er­a­tion be­gan to crit­i­cize

fe­males who re­mained un­mar­ried af­ter 30 as “yel­lowed pearls” or shengnü—“left­over women.” The term be­came widely used in main­stream me­dia, even as the num­bers of shengnü in­creased: China’s last cen­sus in 2010 showed that the num­bers of un­mar­ried women over 25 had nearly quin­tu­pled since 1990, to 14.5 mil­lion. Around the same time, the na­tional mar­riage rate fell to 8.3 per 1,000 peo­ple, even as di­vorce rates rose 8.9 per­cent in 2016 alone.

Match­mak­ers and re­la­tion­ship gu­rus have mean­while be­gun to mul­ti­ply, urg­ing shengnü “not to be picky,” and put fa­mil­ial obli­ga­tions be­fore their own fi­nan­cial in­de­pen­dence. Many women in­creas­ingly re­sent this nup­tial pres­sure, view­ing it as archaic and un­nec­es­sary. Yet, still, few en­joy full au­ton­omy over their bod­ies, as both the pol­icy en­vi­ron­ment and main­stream val­ues frame women’s re­pro­duc­tive rights as fall­ing un­der a broader so­ci­etal su­per­vi­sion.

The law lags be­hind so­cial progress. Even with the 2016 amend­ments, for ex­am­ple, fines for ex­tra-mar­i­tal preg­nan­cies per­sist, and sin­gle women must seek any fer­til­ity treat­ment abroad.

In 2015, ac­tress Xu Jin­glei, then 41, had her eggs frozen in the US, telling Chi­nese me­dia that “elec­tive fer­til­ity preser­va­tion” was the only way she could jus­tify the de­ci­sion to de­lay hav­ing a baby. At that time, her de­ci­sion roused na­tion­wide dis­cus­sion, es­pe­cially among sin­gle women. China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion, mak­ing its po­si­tion clear, im­me­di­ately is­sued a Weibo post re­mind­ing view­ers that unwed women were not al­lowed to pur­sue such treat­ments in China.

But the con­tro­versy re­fused to die: To­ward the end of 2015, a woman called Wu Xia, along with her exboyfriend, Shen Bolun, jointly started a crowd­fund­ing project seek­ing to raise 43,910 RMB to help pay the “so­cial com­pen­sa­tion fee” for their “il­le­git­i­mate” child.

“We both felt the pol­icy was un­rea­son­able,” Wu told Rain­bow Lawyers, an NGO who com­piled a 2016 re­port on un­mar­ried birth rights, hop­ing to ef­fect changes to re­lated rules and reg­u­la­tions. “It’s the first baby for us both, and we didn’t add any ex­tra bur­den to so­ci­ety, so why did we have to pay ‘com­pen­sa­tion?’ Why was hav­ing a child out of wed­lock a vi­o­la­tion of fam­ily plan­ning poli­cies?” De­spite an out­pour­ing of pub­lic sup­port, there were many who called Shen “ir­re­spon­si­ble” and Wu “shame­less”; af­ter a while, the project was forced off­line.

By the time Ya­tou fin­ished her first trimester, she’d fi­nally de­cided to tell her par­ents—via text mes­sage. “Dad, I’m preg­nant. I can’t tell you the father, but I’ve de­cided to have the baby and raise it on my own,” she wrote. There was no re­sponse, so the next day she ap­pre­hen­sively called to gauge their re­ac­tion. But to her sur­prise and re­lief, her father was com­pletely fine with the sit­u­a­tion; he had even read the mes­sage aloud to her mother when he re­ceived it.

Her ex­tended fam­ily, on the other hand, was less than im­pressed.

Ya­tou was in­vited to ap­pear on a Shang­hai Broad­cast­ing Net­work panel about the fam­ily-plan­ning pol­icy; film­ing, though, soon veered into a de­bate about the moral­ity of un­mar­ried moth­er­hood. One guest used her own ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up in a sin­gle-par­ent fam­ily to list


char­ac­ter flaws that she claimed chil­dren would be bound to ex­hibit with­out a proper father fig­ure.

“Some of my rel­a­tives watched the show, and ve­he­mently op­posed the idea of me hav­ing the baby by my­self,” Ya­tou re­called. “They kept call­ing my father and telling him to stop my ‘sense­less’ ac­tions.”

But Ya­tou’s ex­am­ple of moth­er­hood proved better than her ex­tended fam­ily ex­pected. Af­ter her son, Jiu’er, was born in Jan­uary 2016, she raised him by her­self, all while run­ning a small hos­tel in Dali—a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion in Yun­nan prov­ince for for­eign back­pack­ers, artists, bo­hemi­ans, and mid­dle-class Chi­nese seek­ing a break from the met­ro­pol­i­tan mill. Dur­ing the off-sea­son, she took Jiu’er on trips, some­times even as far as South­east Asia. Be­fore Jiu’er was two, he’d ac­quired a pass­port; pho­tos on Ya­tou’s Wechat Mo­ments, a so­cial me­dia feed, showed her climb­ing hills and pos­ing next to rivers, all with Jiu’er in a bam­boo bas­ket on her back.

“Grad­u­ally, no­body ques­tioned me any­more,” she said. “Peo­ple who saw my Mo­ments knew we were do­ing just fine.”

There were cer­tainly hard­ships. Money was of­ten tight; Jiu’er’s father only paid a sin­gle month of child sup­port, breach­ing his signed le­gal agree­ment. Ya­tou sued and won, but the ver­dict wasn’t en­forced, and he con­tin­ues to refuse to pay child sup­port, cit­ing var­i­ous rea­sons such as be­ing un­em­ployed; Ya­tou had to find a sec­ond job to keep the fam­ily afloat.

Now, as more women be­come ac­cept­ing of the idea, other prospec­tive moth­ers have started look­ing into al­ter­na­tives to China’s strict preg­nancy poli­cies.

“Lots of un­mar­ried women reach out to us to try to have a baby, in­clud­ing LGBT groups,” ex­plained a fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tive at agency USSino In­fer­til­ity Bridge (an­tic­i­pat­ing that the com­pany would stonewall me­dia, TWOC’S re­porter vis­ited as a po­ten­tial client). Her an­swers showed ready ex­pe­ri­ence han­dling ques­tions, pa­tiently ex­plain­ing how the agency pairs re­quests from China with for­eign donors from sperm banks in the US, then flies clients in for IVF treat­ment. A sin­gle full pro­ce­dure costs 29,000 USD.

Ac­cord­ing to the agent, clients have a full range of op­tions, in­clud­ing the race, ed­u­ca­tion, or blood type of donors. A sam­ple doc­u­ment sent to TWOC showed a child­hood photo of the donor, iden­ti­fied only by an ID num­ber. The cre­den­tials also in­cluded his race, blood type, height, weight, eye color, hair color, ed­u­ca­tion, ca­reer, fam­ily med­i­cal his­tory, and hob­bies, and even in­cluded per­sonal ob­ser­va­tions from the sperm bank: “He’s shaped like an athlete, with strong bone struc­ture and mus­cu­lar arms. He has a friendly and warm smile…speaks in a kind man­ner, is con­sid­er­ate and thought­ful.”

On Q&A site Zhihu, China’s ver­sion of Quora, women fre­quently share their ex­pe­ri­ences and ques­tions about the pro­ce­dure. One user, in a re­cent thread, said she saved up 700,000 RMB to get IVF in the US be­cause she couldn’t find any­one she wanted to


marry; as she al­ready has a house, car, and se­nior po­si­tion at a multi­na­tional com­pany, she didn’t feel the need to set­tle for any Tom, Dick, or Harry.

“I can see the rea­son­ing be­hind that,” Ya­tou said. “Some of my friends, their hus­bands don’t re­ally do any­thing around the house or help take care of the baby. It’s no won­der more and more [women] don’t want to get mar­ried.”

One ex­cep­tion to the rules re­gard­ing fer­til­ity treat­ment is North­east China’s Jilin prov­ince, whose fam­ily plan­ning reg­u­la­tions dic­tate that “women who are of le­gal mar­riage age [18], who de­cide not to marry…can take ap­pro­pri­ate med­i­cal re­pro­duc­tive tech­nol­ogy to have one child.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Rain­bow Lawyers, in prac­tice, Jilin’s guide­lines have met with back­lash from lo­cal hos­pi­tals, who fear go­ing against na­tional reg­u­la­tions. Ma Hu, one woman named in the NGO’S re­port, in­quired at sev­eral Jilin hos­pi­tals and govern­ment of­fices whether an un­mar­ried woman can use IVF to have a baby; in­stead of an an­swer, Ma found the buck was sim­ply passed be­tween depart­ments.

To lobby for more pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion across the coun­try, Rain­bow’s Zhan Yingy­ing mailed Jilin deputies ahead of this year’s Na­tional Peo­ple’s Con­gress in March, ask­ing them to pro­pose that all hos­pi­tals should al­low fer­til­ity treat­ments for un­mar­ried sin­gles, in­clud­ing freez­ing eggs, and adding that the pub­lic was broadly sup­port­ive of the pol­icy.

A week be­fore the “Two Ses­sions,” Zhan fi­nally re­ceived some pos­i­tive feed­back, with one del­e­gate say­ing that he would be will­ing to hand in their pro­posal. “We were count­ing on the topic to be more widely cov­ered, and hoped to force the govern­ment make a state­ment,” Zhan told TWOC. In­stead, noth­ing fur­ther was re­ported by the rel­e­vant health depart­ments—and the del­e­gate sim­ply stopped re­spond­ing.



In 2018, the Fam­ily Plan­ning Com­mis­sion de­clared that cou­ples us­ing as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies no longer need to ap­ply for a fam­ily plan­ning cer­tifi­cate

Par­ents ap­ply­ing to use as­sisted re­pro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies must still present a mar­riage cer­tifi­cate, their ID cards, and a birth per­mit

In 2011, the first baby in Shaanxi prov­ince con­ceived from frozen eggs was born

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