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Policies and mental wealth fuels three-child desires

JI TINGTING and DING YI | 2022-03-17 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A dad enjoys quality time with his daughters at Universal Beijing Resort. Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

In recent years, China has become a country with low fertility rates. The total fertility rate (TFR), the average number of children each woman gives birth to during her reproductive years (15 to 49 years old), is commonly used as an international measure of a country or region’s fertility level. 

According to results of the Seventh National Population Census, the TFR for women of childbearing age in China was 1.3 in 2020, far below the replacement rate (requiring an average of 2.1 children per woman). The low fertility rate, resulting in childbearing and aging problems, will influence national development, social stability, and the people’s well-being. As such, it is high on the agenda of our government and society. 
At present, it has become an important task for the Chinese government to optimize its fertility policy and improve the quantity of its newborn population. In response to this, the government has introduced a number of policies to improve the fertility rate. 
In October 2015, the Fifth Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee decided to implement the universal two-child policy. Such policies which aim to boost childbirth have achieved results. According to key figures from the Seventh National Population Census, more than ten million more second-children were born as a result of the policy adjustments. 
To understand how people interpret the more recent three-child policy rolled out in May 2021, and to identify the factors affecting people’s willingness to have three children, the authors conducted a survey on married people of childbearing age in China. 
The questionnaires used include inquiries regarding policy interpretation (“Do you think the government’s three-child policy encourages most couples to have three children, or does it encourage couples who are willing to have three children to do so?”); questions about willingness to have three children (“How strong is your willingness to have three children under the three-child policy?”); investigation into social and economic strength (measurement of the objective socio-economic resources that people actually have, by asking them to fill in their educational background and monthly income; and a scale ranking subjective socio-economic status (which measures an individual’s perceived position on a social ladder with ten different levels representing different socio-economic statuses). 
As men also have an important say in family planning decisions, this study also surveyed the male married population. Through an online questionnaire platform, 485 valid questionnaires were collected for this study, of which 204 were from men and 281 from women, with an age range of 21 to 49 years old. 
Policy interpretation 
Our survey result interpretation is that the three-child policy aims to encourage most couples to have three children, and that it will increase people’s willingness to have three children. In this study, the mean score of 3.41 on the questionnaire on people’s intention to have three children is significantly lower than the theoretical median of 5 on the questionnaire, indicating a relatively low intention to have three children. 
At the same time, 32% of the respondents in this study noted that the three-child policy meant the government is encouraging most couples to have three children, while 68% interpreted it as the government encouraging couples who want to have three children to do so. 
This difference in policy interpretation can significantly help predict people’s willingness to have three children. Compared with the people who interpreted the policy as encouraging couples with a desire to have three children, those who interpreted it as encouraging most couples to have three children were more willing to do so. 
Survey results suggest that interpreting the three-child policy as the government encouraging most couples to have three children has a positive impact on people’s willingness to have three children. 
High subjective socioeconomic status perception can significantly increase people’s willingness to have three children. This study has shown that a high perception of socio-economic status can significantly and positively predict people’s willingness to have more children. As the perception of status increases, people’s willingness to have more children becomes higher. 
At the same time, willingness of men to have three children is significantly higher than that of women. Education and income levels do not significantly influence people’s willingness. In fact, an earlier study based on the Chinese General Social Survey found that women’s educational background and income level significantly and negatively affect their family planning intentions. However, this study found no significant differences in the willingness to have three children among women of different educational backgrounds and income levels. 
The above results show that people’s subjective perception and identification of their socio-economic status has a significant positive effect on their willingness to have three children, while objective socio-economic status, based on educational background and income level, has a limited effect on their willingness. 
It is worth noting that in this study, subjective perceptions of socio-economic status were only moderately correlated with both educational background and income level. This result suggests that objective material abundance does not necessarily lead directly to psychological richness. 
Ways forward 
Based on the above findings, and taking into account China’s continued slowdown in population growth and the urgent need to optimize its population structure, it is suggested to enhance Chinese people’s willingness to have three children in the following ways. 
First, strengthen the promotion and implementation of policies which encourage childbirth to help increase the willingness to have three children. As an exploratory study, this research makes an important contribution by proving that different interpretations of the three-child policy affect people’s willingness to have three children. Clearly, people who interpreted the policy as the government encouraging most couples to have three children had a higher willingness to have three children. 
To this end, appropriate policy or information  framing may have a positive impact on people’s interest in childbearing. Framing refers to the different ways in which people describe and express information about an objectively identical issue, and it is an important strategy for influencing and intervening in individual decisions and behavior. 
Therefore, in the presentation and promotion of the three-child policy, media reporting should consider public interests, pay attention to the purpose of encouraging the majority of people to have three children, increase involvement of people of childbearing age, and the willingness of people in China to have three children. When implementing the three-child policy, governments at all levels should also pay attention to the development and implementation of “proactive” support policies to create a favorable social environment that respects and encourages the birth of three children and helps to increase the willingness to have three children. 
Second, we should enhance people’s psychological richness in order to increase the potential of having three children. This study finds that people’s subjective perception of, and identification with, their socio-economic status is an important factor influencing their willingness to have three children. High perceptions of socio-economic status will help increase people’s interest in having children. It is worth noting that there are limits to psychological richness linked to rising economic incomes and higher levels of education. 
This inspires us to focus on social mindsets and psychological experiences, and to focus on enhancing people’s sense of gain and psychological richness. We can enhance maternity protection and service systems, improve benefit policies and subsidies for having three children, and implement relevant supporting measures, to reduce the economic pressure and psychological strain brought about by childbirth and parenting costs, and alleviate psychological stressors that make people afraid and unwilling to have children. 
Meanwhile, we need to pay attention to the urgent needs of the people. We should improve social security measures, build a social support system, guarantee social equity and justice, provide humanistic care, safeguard the dignity of individuals, and enhance people’s sense of gain, happiness, and security. In doing so, people’s psychological richness will be strengthened, creating the potential to have three children. 
The population issue has a bearing on people’s livelihoods and the long-term development of a country. The low birth rate has become a salient social problem in China. What can be done to increase the family planning intentions and motivation of couples of childbearing age in China? What psychological factors influence people’s family planning intentions and behavior? 
These questions should become important research topics for psychologists in China. The results of this study highlight the positive impact of psychological factors on our population’s willingness to have more children, and therefore we have reason to believe that psychology will play a greater role in addressing social problems and implementing public policies. 
Ji Tingting and Ding Yi are lecturers from the School of Psychology at Nanjing Normal University. 
Edited by WENG RONG