A Comparison Between Rural and Urban Reactions to China's Fertility
By Mary Snyder
With the support of a Luce Foundation Grant for China Studies.
For the last forty years there has been mounting concern about the "overpopulation problem." China, which is home to roughly on fifth of the world's population, has always been a focus for those concerned with the pressure placed on the earth's limited resources by excessive population. The leadership of the People's Republic of China has taken a wide range of stances concerning the population issue in the last fifty years, ranging from a complete denial of the idea that over population posed a problem, to the implementation of the "one child" policy, the strictest population control policy in history. The policies of the PRC have had a profound impact on the culture and demographics of the world's most populous nation.
In this paper I will examine how Chinese families experience the one child policy, and the impact of this policy on their fertility behaviors and preferences, especially their preferences regarding the sex of their children. I will examine these issues with an awareness of the main factors, which determine the way in which the policy is applied and the reactions to it. To do this, I will focus on two broad sub sets of the Chinese population: urban dwellers with worker registration, rural residents with agricultural registration. These two groups, while they do not begin to encompass the diversity of the Chinese population, do provide a useful means of comparison in order to explore the way fertility preferences and behaviors under the policy are affected by: socio cultural factors, the degree of governmental control, and socio economic considerations.
During the early years of the PRC, over population was not considered to be a problem. Chairman Mao asserted that: "Of all things in the world, people are the most precious." When confronted with Malthusian arguments asserting that the population
would outpace the country's resources, Mao responded: "It is a very good thing that China has a large population. Even if China's population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production."' However, in 1970, after the population had grown by 273 percent in just twenty years (from 300 million to 820 million), the PRC changed its stance on population and initiated China's first governmental campaign to limit fertility. 2 This campaign, known by it's slogan, "later-sparser fewer" (wan xi shao) urged couples to marry later, increase the interval between births, and to have fewer children. This policy was extremely successful; during the 1970s the total fertility rate dropped from 5.82 to 2.75 in just nine years. '3
The exact mechanisms of the sharp decline in fertility during the 1970s are still under discussion. It appears that many of the coercive measures that characterize the current one child policy, such as birth quotas, were initiated under the wan-xi-shao campaign. 4 Some attribute the fertility decline to these stringent policies. However, other scholars cite the increase in the status, socio economic stature, and education of women as the primary factor behind the fertility decline. According to Freedman, the increased status of women along with the decrease in child mortality probably resulted in a reduction in the desired number of children.5 Whatever the case, it is clear that the wan-xi shao policy was a period of transition from the pre 1970 pattern of high, self determined fertility to the pattern of low, governmentally controlled fertility of the one-child policy.
Despite the great reduction of fertility during the 70s, the government feared that their gains might be lost due to the large portion of the population approaching
i.The total fertility rate (TFR) is the average number of children each woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime.
childbearing age. As a result, the much stricter one child family policy was instituted in 1979.6 Under this policy, families are restricted from having more than one child. After a couple gave birth to a child they are compelled to accept a certificate signifying that they agree to have no more children. In return for accepting the one child certificate, families receive certain monetary, educational, and healthcare benefits. Should the family break the terms of the agreement and give birth to another child, they would be required to repay the cost of the benefits they collected, in addition to other penalties. The one child policy is administered on state, regional, and local levels. Each administrative unit and subunit is allocated a quota for the maximum number of births permitted in a given year. It is the job of the birth planning workers to select the families who will be permitted to give birth in a given year and to issue them official permission. Fines and other penalties are levied against families who violate the policy by giving birth without permission, giving birth too soon after marriage, marrying before the mandatory age, or attempting to conceal an out of plan birth from officials.7
As with the wan-xi-shao campaign, propaganda, education, and ready access to contraception and abortion are key components of the one child policy. However, the one child policy also relies heavily on coercion to achieve the desired number of births. Under the marriage law of 1980, women are required to submit proof of contraceptive use (usually in the form of an IUD, the presence of which was verified twice a year through mandatory medical examinations) and abortion became the mandatory form of "remediation" for unplanned pregnancies. 8 Great personal pressure is exerted on individuals by birth planning cadres who visit women to enquire about them, to educate them as to the policy and it's importance to the country, and to implore them to practice
birth control or to abort an out of plan pregnancy. Other means of group pressure are used to ensure compliance with the policy, such as penalizing an entire collective or work unit for an out of plan birth. Some more forceful methods of inducing compliance with the policy have also been documented including forced abortions and sterilizations.9
While, in theory the one child policy remains today, it has undergone a series of revisions over the course of its existence. The biggest revision of policy occurred around 1986 when the government expanded the qualifications allowing a couple to legally give birth to a second child. At the outset of the policy only a small number of families qualified to have a second child these included ethnic minorities, those whose first child had died or become disabled, and those who had worked in certain industries. However, as a result of the great resistance to the policy in the countryside, these exceptions were expanded over time to include people who were the only surviving male in family line and whose first child was a girl, and then eventually any peasant family whose first child was a girl. Thus, for the majority of the Chinese population, the one child policy evolved into a one son or two children policy by the later part of the 1980s.'°
The PRC's population control policies have evolved over the last thirty years; they have undergone many modifications and periods of greater and lesser enforcement but the results are clear: population growth has slowed dramatically. These policies, particularly the one child policy instituted in 1979, have had a profound impact on Chinese demographics. According to the Chinese Bureau of Statistics the crude birth rate and the rate of natural increase have fallen precipitously from the 1963 peak of 43.37% and 33.33% to the 1998 level of 16.03% and 9.53% respectively." In essence, the government's family planning policies have caused China to go through what
demographers call "demographic transition" (the transition from high death rates and high birth rates, to low death rates and low birth rates) in a few short decades rather than over the course of centuries as has been the case elsewhere in the world) 2 Clearly, such rapid and dramatic demographic transition is bound to have and equally dramatic impact on the country's social and cultural systems particularly the family.
Traditionally, Chinese fertility has been characterized by a preference for large, complex extended families. Due to the high rates of infant and child mortality occurring amongst the peasant population, which composed the vast majority of the Chinese population, few families (usually, only the wealthiest families) were able to achieve this ideal. This meant that there was a certain status attached to large families. After 1949, child mortality diminished and it became possible for more rural families to achieve this ideal. 13 As a result of this decrease in mortality, China's population grew very rapidly, increasing from 300 to 820 million between 1950 and 1970. However, in the same time fertility rates within cities began to fall, as a result of the greater education and opportunities available to women, and the practical considerations of urban life. Thus, at the time of the introduction of China's fertility control policies, the fertility of urban Chinese had begun a downward trend from 4.9 in 1950 to 3.3 in 1970 and rural China's fertility increased gradually over the period going from 5.7 in 1950 to 6.3 in 1970.'
In Chinese culture there is a long tradition of son preference. The roots of son-preference in china are tied to the patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal Confucian family structure. It was very important for families to produce an heir to continue the family line and to worship the family's ancestors. Of course, if a family could not produce an heir one could always be adopted, however, natural sons were preferred. Daughters were
not nearly as useful to their parents because they would eventually leave home to live with their husbands' families. Daughters' dual membership in both their natal and marital families had the effect of reducing their status in both. While both sons and daughter's commonly cared and provided for parents in their old age, it was considered to be primarily the son's responsibility because daughters had other responsibilities in their marital household, such as caring for her husbands parents. Sons were also valued because of their ability to contribute to the family economy. Although, both sons and daughters often contributed to the family economy, sons were preferable because they would do so for more years and because their contributions were valued more highly than that of daughters. (The work of women continues to be differentially valued in China today, which is demonstrated by the fact that women receive less pay than men for the same work). 15 Son preference was also strengthened by a pervasive cultural bias against women. Women had to endure bound feet, and first a marginal role in their natal family and then a marginal role in their marital family. It was often only through giving birth to and rearing sons that women could acquire status and influence. Ironically, this too perpetuates son preference.
The persistence of son preference even in modem times is visible when were examine the difference in mortality between male and female children during the famine that occurred during "The Great Leap Foreword" of 1959 1961. During these years, female children, who have a statistically greater survival rate compared with male children of the same ages, were more likely to die than male children. According to Coale and Banister: "This finding suggests that a strong pattern of selective neglect of girls in childhood occurred between 1953 and 1964." 16 Clearly, when resources became
scarce Chinese families were more likely to attempt to preserve the life of their male children than their female children.
Prior to the initiation of China's fertility control policies, families had the option of managing their fertility according to their needs and desires, without governmental interference. Indeed, it appears that Chinese families did commonly manipulate their fertility according to their preferences throughout this century and even earlier. 17 However, with the advent of governmental fertility control, Chinese families lost the exclusive right to manage their own fertility. Clearly, the fertility behaviors mandated by the one child policy represent a profound departure from both recent and traditional fertility preferences and behaviors. This raises several questions. How Chinese families have reacted to this policy, which essentially repudiates traditional fertility ideals? Has the policy been effective in reshaping people's fertility goals and behaviors to match the government's population goals? And, if not, how do families manage their fertility goals in the context of this restrictive policy?
The evidence indicates that after twenty years, the one child policy has not been successful in altering the fertility preferences and behaviors of the majority of the Chinese population to match policy goals. While fertility has declined dramatically, it has still fallen short of the PRC leadership's goal of one child per couple. Since around 1985 the total fertility rate has remained near replacement level (2.2). 18 While this is a striking reduction in fertility, it is far from the policy's target of one child per woman. According to Zeng Yi, the TRF for 1990 was 2.43 (adjusted for under reporting). Approximately 80% of China's population is rural or agricultural and would therefore qualify to have a second child if the first were a girl. Assuming that around half of first
births were girls, that means only 40% of women should be having more than one child. This would equal a TFR of 1.40. This means that for every childbearing woman there is approximately one out of plan birth. This is a rather low level of compliance with such a strict policy indicates the strength of the resistance that exists towards the policy.
Another glaring indication of the policy's inability to change people's fertility preferences is the persistence of son preference. According to Milwertz:
The major problem in implementing the one child family policy can be traced to this enduring traditional Confucian son preference. Young parents are unlikely to accept only one child if the child is female. The reasons are socio economic, just as they have historical and cultural roots in the traditional Confucian patriarchal family system. 19
Indeed the one child policy has caused an intensification of son preference. One indication that China's birth reduction campaign has increased son preference is the marked increase in male to female sex ratio among recorded births. Sex ratios at birth reflect the number of male births for every hundred female births; they are relatively stable at approximately 106 male births per hundred female births. 20 The sex ratios in China have increased in recent years from 106.4 in the pre birth regulation days of 19621966, to 108.3 at the beginning of the one child policy in 1978 1982, and finally to 113.8 in 1989 a figure that is significantly higher than the expected figure of 106. 21 This figure means that there were 500,000 to one million fewer recorded female births in 1989 than one would expect to occur without intervention of some sort. The difference between the expected number of female births recorded each year and the recorded number is referred to as the problem of China's "missing girls."22 Studies show that the number of missing girls has grown throughout the 1980s and into the 1990’s ii
ii The majority of the data cited in this paper pertains to the first decade of the policy, 1979 1989. There is limited data available from the 1990s. Scholars are likely still analyzing the data from the 1990s. Also, interest in the topic may have diminished as the one child policy enters its twenty second year.
It is important to recognize that this resistance to the one child policy indicated by out of plan births, abnormal sex ratios, and general resentment toward the policy does not express itself equally in different subsets of the Chinese population. The most striking difference is between rural and urban populations, particularly rural people with peasant registration and urban people with worker registration. Urban people appear to have an extremely high level of compliance with the policy; they typically give birth only to the permissible number of children and the sex ratio at birth appears to be closer to the expected ratio than elsewhere in China. However, in contrast, the rural population tends to have a high level of resistance to the policy. Rural families frequently have more than the permissible number of births and a significantly higher ratio of boys to girls. Twill argue that this marked difference in fertility behaviors and preferences is the result of three factors: differences in the level of governmental control, cultural tendencies, and socio economic considerations.
The One Child Policy In The Urban Context
The one child policy has been most effective in urban areas among people with worker registration.'" Within this group, compliance with the policy is nearly universal and the sex ratio at birth is much closer to the expected ratio. According to Li, in 1991 approximately 91 percent of mothers with worker registration had only one child, while only 59 percent of those with agricultural registration did so. Similarly, 87% of mothers with worker registration accepted the one child certificate as compared with 13% of mothers with agricultural registration. 23 Furthermore, sex ratios for urban residents
appear to be much lower than those of rural residents and residents of towns. According to Hull, the sex ratio in 1987 was 108.73 in cities, compared with 111.20 in towns, and 111.35 in rural areas (for a total of 110.94 for all of China) .24 There are several reasons for this correlation between urban residence/worker registration and compliance with the policy: high levels of government control, practical constraints of urban life, higher levels of education, and changing social and cultural norms.
Government control plays a large role in compliance with the one policy. Those living in urban areas with worker registration are subject to extensive government control of many aspects of their lives. They rely on the government (usually through their work unit) for most of the necessities of daily life. They receive a salary, housing, an old age pension, food allocation, healthcare, educational benefits, vacations and leaves from work, all through the government. If they violate government policy they are subject to the loss of part or all of their salary and benefits; they may also lose their job or be prevented from advancing within their work place. Any fines levied against them can be deducted directly from their pay. 25 Another form of control exerted by the government is the ability to penalize an entire work unit if one person fails to comply with the one child policy. This places a great deal of pressure on families to comply with the policy, so as not to harm the entire group. 26 Thus, workers have a vested interest in remaining in the good graces of the government; indeed for many workers the ramifications of violating the one child policy would be disastrous.
Birth planning work is conducted both through a woman's workplace (very little of the birth planning work is directed at men) and within their area of residence. This
iii Here I am going to examine type two registration and urban residency together as they are strongly correlated: the majority of those with worker registration live in the cities and the majority of those living
overlap ensures that no urban resident with worker registration is capable of slipping through the cracks of the birth planning system. 27 This makes it impossible for a woman to conceal an out of plan pregnancy from officials. (And, as I will discuss below, contributes to the lower sex ratios seen in cities because it makes it impossible for families to hide or dispose of unwanted female babies.) Administration of the policy through work units also aids birth planning workers in their efforts to ideologically educate workers, as they can hold birth planning lectures during work hours and mandate attendance. Anyone who is perceived to be resisting the policy, or at risk of violating the policy, is visited and closely monitored by the birth planning cadre in her district. According to urban birth planning cadres, the one child policy is nearly universally accepted; the only people who resist are those under pressure from older generations to produce an son, or those who remarry after one of the parties has already had a child. 28 In these cases both residential and work unit birth planning cadres work together to persuade the couple to behave within the plan or, if the woman is already pregnant, to terminate the pregnancy immediately. Birth planning workers also deal with registering marriages, determining when a woman may receive permission to give birth, and providing and monitoring the use of contraceptives.
One interesting outcome of the way in which the policy is administered in urban areas is that becoming pregnant can be an extremely bureaucratic process. In order to legally get pregnant a woman must meet the minimum age requirement of 24 years old, be married, and get permission from both the residential officials and work unit officials. 29 This can be difficult because both work units and residential units have quotas, and both must give a woman priority in order for her to qualify for a birth permit.
in rural areas have peasant registration.
(Women are typically prioritized for birth permits according to their age, with the oldest receiving permits first.) In the work units Milwertz studied, the process was usually stream lined if a woman was over twenty four and pregnant for the first time; in this situation birth cadres would do their best to fit her into the quota and provide her with a birth permit for the pregnancy. 30 However, this was not always the case under the one-child policy a woman's fertility can be controlled according to the whims of the birth-planning cadres, even when their decisions don't serve any productive end.
A forty year old woman, who had married a divorcee with two children, became pregnant. The two birth planning workers at her work unit disagreed as to whether she should have an abortion or not. However, as she did not have a birth permit, the birth planning cadres eventually compromised. The woman said they made her have an abortion' otherwise her bonus would be deducted. Then following the abortion, they helped her obtain a birth permit so she could become pregnant again. 31
This rather disturbing stow shows just how little control urban Chinese women have over their own fertility.
While the high level of government control does give urban people substantial reason to comply with the one child policy, and limits their ability to maneuver around the system, there are other factors, which contribute to the low birth rate. Urban women tend to have lower overall fertility preferences than do other Chinese women. 32 As mentioned above the fertility rates of urban women had already started to fall prior to the introduction of China's fertility limitation policies. A female graduate student from Beijing, born under the policy, demonstrated the rapid decrease in fertility preferences within urban areas when she explained, "My mother had thirteen brothers and sisters, but my parents only wanted one: me!"
Mother reason urban residents tend to comply with the one child policy is because it is not incompatible with their needs or their living situation. As Whyte and Gu
observed: "Everything we know about urban life in China suggests that it presents an environment decidedly favorable to low fertility and even to the one child family." 33 Urban people live in incredibly cramped quarters. In Deborah Davis' 1987 survey of 99 representative Shanghai families, she found that the average space per person in a home was 5.5 square meters. 34 This is roughly the same area as a king sized bed. Urban parents also have less of a need for children than rural parents do because most urban children do not contribute to the family economy as they do in rural China. Workers are also guaranteed pensions from their place of employment, so they do not need many children to ensure their financial security in old age.
Another cause of urban people's low fertility preferences is the success of education and propaganda in altering fertility views. Urban women tend to be better educated than rural women. In general, women with more education are more likely to accept the "one child" certificate and less likely to have a second child.35 Population education, in particular, has been very effective in altering the fertility preferences of urban Chinese. According to Milwertz's survey of women in Beijing and Shenyang, while between 26 and 82 percent of women said that they would prefer more than one child, the majority also agreed that some sort of population control measures were necessary in China. Also, the vast majority (85%) stated the "The individual must voluntarily submit to the policy of the nation."36 In Milwert's study she found that few urban women resented the one child policy, in fact, the primary resentment that existed was towards those (such a rural to urban migrants) who managed to skirt the regulations. This is because urban workers accept the policy as a fact of life. They do not question the policy, or find the policy to be distasteful, so long as it is evenly and fairly applied.
According to Milwertz, this acceptance of the nation's policies is part of reciprocal relationship between workers and the state. The state provides the necessities of life and in return workers submit to the authority of the state. Urban woman do not consider even the coercive or invasive aspects of the policy, such as the monitoring of their contraceptive use, to be objectionable. On the contrary, they see the coercive behaviors of birth planning cadres to be a form of caring. Take for instance a birth planning worker urging a woman to accept an IUD. Women feel that this worker is only trying to help them because if they don't use contraceptives and they become pregnant then they will have to get an abortion which is a very painful procedure in China because doctors perform abortions without any form of anesthetic. Women see the birth planning workers as helping them avoid to negative consequences that accompany noncompliance with the policy. They accept the policy as a fact of life, and see the birth planning workers as helping them manage this reality. 37
Another factor that contributes to urban women's low fertility preferences is a change in the culture of parenting that has followed the introduction of the one child policy, which is sometimes referred to as "the cult of the perfect only child." The one-child policy has become such part of life for urban families that it has gradually influenced the culture. In a society where only one child is permitted per family, parents have come to place a tremendous emphasis on the accomplishments of that one child. Parents only have one child focus their attention on and to encourage to fulfill their ambitions for the next generation. Also, with only one child, parents must rely solely on that child for their care in old age. Thus, the future of that child is very important to parents. Consequently, parents devote a substantial portion of their time and resources to
insuring the future of their only child. Parents have even become quite competitive about providing their child with all the things that other parents provide their children music lessons, tutors, educational activities, and even "Baby Mozart" tapes. Many parents feel they must do all these things not only so their children will be successful, but also so that their children will feel love and gratitude towards their parents and thus provide better care for their parents in their old age. This has had the effect of reducing the fertility preferences of many women because the requirements of parenting have become so intense that the idea of maintaining one child parenting standards for multiple children seems unmanageable to most parents. 38
Urban parents are also more compliant with the one child policy because son-preference is much less pronounced. This is a result of the higher education levels in the cities, and the greater level of equality between urban men and women. In Milwertz's study of urban mothers 27.5% of women said they hoped that their baby would be a boy when they were pregnant, 16.1% said that they hoped that their baby would be a girl, and 52.3% said they were unconcerned with the sex of their child.39 Generally, the ideal for most women is to have both a boy and a girl .40 Many women showed a preference for girls because they felt that girls are nicer and more concerned with their parents. This idea was summed up with the phrase "girl is close." Many parents felt that a daughter would be more sensitive to their needs and take better care of them in their old age. However, this is not to say that son preference is absent in urban China. Many parents still wish to have a son to perpetuate the family line. And, while the figures cited by Milwertz show rather low rates of son preference, these figures only reflect to opinions of urban women of childbearing age. Men and members of the older generation
(particularly the husbands parents) also tend to have a say in fertility decisions, and it is likely that they might have a greater preference for sons because it is their family line which needs perpetuation, not the woman's. This is reflected in the statement of one of Milwertz's informants: "I hoped for a girl. My husband hoped for a boy. I think most men want a son. I suppose the reason is the tradition of exalting males and demeaning females, which is still very prevalent is society. Boys can continue the family line."41 The sex ratios among urban Chinese families are less skewed than they are for other segments of the Chinese population, however, they are still high enough to require some explanation. I will deal with the causes of the differences between expected and actual sex ratios in a later section.