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China needs more inclusive child-rearing support

YU GEGE | 2021-12-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A mother takes care of two kids at a time. Photo: Weng Rong/CSST

Population development concerns the future of a nation. The Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 stated that China will build a long-term population strategy, and bring out revised childbirth policies that are more inclusive and will be implemented in tandem with economic and social policies to promote balanced long-term population development. 

Against this backdrop, scholars in the field of sociology and population studies have begun to focus on active supportive measures that center around the “three-child policy.” In a seminar held this September, scholars shed light on themes including the low birthrate, social support for child-rearing, and international comparison of family policies. 
Low fertility rates
The three-child policy is going to greatly change China’s future. Wang Suqin, deputy secretary of the Party Committee of the departments directly affiliated to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), pointed out that the three-child policy is yet another major shift that China has made in its childbearing policy. It will greatly influence the country’s childbearing, child-caring, and female employment. 
Yang Dian, deputy director of the School of Sociology at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that the policy not only concerns families and gender issues, but will also determine China’s policy-making in other spheres of governance, such as the economy, politics, and culture. 
Population structure also influences family, political, and economic structure. Wang Guangzhou, a research fellow from the Institute of Population and Labor Economics at CASS, analyzed the major changes in China’s population structure as revealed by the Seventh National Population Census. He was convinced that demographic structure is closely related to family, social, and economic structures. To improve China’s birth policy and promote long-term, balanced demographic development, all districts across the country need to pay great attention to the prominent negative growth and the low fertility rate trap, while coordinating population policies with social and economic policies within their development programs. 
Wu Fan, a professor from the Department of Social Work and Social Policy at Nankai University, talked about the “birthrate deficit,” which is seen when the actual birthrate is lower than the expected or desirable fertility rate. This is a window of opportunity where family policies, pronatalist policies, and supportive policies should be applied to bridge the gap.
Individual development
Wu Zhen, a scholar from the Institute of Provincial State and Social Development at the Shandong Academy of Social Sciences, raised an example from France to showcase whether or not individualization has led to a decreased birthrate. He believed that it was necessary to differentiate between passive and positive individualization. It is important for the government to protect people’s individualized lifestyles and make it easier for people to access their freedom and rights to reproduce, enhancing the reproductive instinct.
Based on the discourse and practices of middle-class stay-at-home mothers, Hang Suhong, a scholar from the Institute of Sociology at CASS, reflected on the one-dimensional value system behind women’s self-realization. She analyzed the complex experience of stay-at-home motherhood from the perspectives of women’s social ego and spiritual ego, while trying to depict women’s internal transformations and their approach to realizing their dreams.
Parents are chief undertakers of both bearing and caring for the children, which makes parenting especially important. Shen Yang, an associate professor from the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, conducted research on childbirth’s effects upon couples’ careers. She found that when making professional choices, husbands tend to think less about the sacrifices their wives will make due to their career decisions. Therefore, Shen calls for the government to roll out policies or guidance to encourage men to be more family-oriented. 
Meng Ke, an associate professor from the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, conducted a blind recruitment trial to examine the “expected motherhood penalty” caused by employers’ expectations. He found that unmarried women experience an employment dilemma, which is especially prominent in economically developed districts and places with longer maternity leaves. 
Social support 
From an intergenerational perspective, Zhong Xiaohui, an associate professor from the School of Government at Sun Yat-sen University, discussed the three-child policy’s impact upon senior  care. She found that the “defamilialization” and “degenderization” levels in China’s child-rearing system remain low. When child care resources are met with structural shortages, the market and family resources have to favor children. When a family cannot balance the two demands, they have a lower interest in childbearing.
Xiao Suowei, an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Beijing Normal University, shared her views on domestic workers. She observed the changing relationship between household employees and employers against the backdrop of the marketization of domestic work. She pointed out that there is a tension between “de-specialization” amid the commercialization of domestic work and the force of “re-specialization” during the labor process of domestic work.
Shi Yunqing at CASS’s Institute of Sociology, and Li Jie from the Institute of Social Work at China Women’s University, have performed case studies from a community perspective, focusing on communities of mothers who have created group parenting practices and full-time mothers who have attempted to move from family to community care, respectively. Based on documentation of extended social parenting, they have discussed its relationship to the excessive burdens of parents today, and investigated building a participative community support model involving mainly full-time mothers. These all have important implications: When it comes to parenting, perhaps it is time to break the conceptual barriers between public and private, and go beyond the market-nonmarket dichotomy. 
Experience of other countries
To explore rational Chinese family policies and population policies in the future, it is necessary to learn from other countries’ experience, as scholars should also have broad international horizons. By comparing value systems which structure international policies, and evaluating their effects, scholars have provided important points of reference for rational policy design which can strike a balance among the government, the market, and society. 
Shi Xing of the Women’s Studies Institute of China shared the Northern European experience of childcare policies and its implications, pinpointing the critical role of government participation and gender equality in childbearing and raising policies. Gong Shun of CASS’s Institute of Sociology conducted a questionnaire-based experimental study on the effects of family policies in Japan, and found the impact of the traditional gender-based social division of labor on family policies. According to Gong Shun’s research, highly educated women and poorly educated men are more susceptible to the effects of family policies. 
Ma Chunhua of CASS’s Institute of Sociology has studied unofficial caretaking and gender equality norms in child care policies in Europe, and found an internal correlation between child care arrangements and gender equality indices. Gao Xiang of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Peking University published research on reproductive and child care policies in the United States, and observed that policy design needs to consider policy objectives’ intrinsic logic and working logic. 
Yang Dian pointed out in his review that social welfare should not be taken as a social burden, but should be perceived as an important asset. The situation in China is even more complicated than other nations, and Yang looked forward to a birth policy with Chinese characteristics. 
Ma Chunhua concluded that this seminar explored the boundaries between sociology, demography, psychology, social work, and other disciplines, paying close attention to topics like inter-generational resource distribution, personal practices, gender-based division of labor, labor markets, and family polices, showcasing research perspectives of young scholars and their innovative research methods. 
Participating scholars agreed that although rich domestic and international experience is shared, behind family policies there are quite complicated cultural values, concepts, domestic systems, and status quos. Moreover, different sectors also have quite divergent attitudes towards birth polices, internal policy objectives, gender-based perspectives, and family perspectives that require further research and discussion. 
Yu Gege is from the Institute of Sociology at the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Edited by WENG RONG