For Wang Huaiying, the elders in her home village cared a lot about having a male heir. Families she grew up around would often have three or four children in the hope of getting a boy, even during the days of China’s one-child policy.
Born and raised in the countryside of Linyi, in eastern China’s Shandong province, the 35-year-old just had her third child , a boy.
The boy will have two older sisters , and Wang said she chose to have a third child partly because of the traditional desire to have a male in the family.
“It is a lie to say I don’t care about the baby’s sex … But our generation does not care as much as our parents, who still care about it very much. The younger generation does not think it is as important,” she said.
“I discussed the pregnancy with my family and we decided to keep it even if it was a girl,” she said.
Despite changing moods among the younger generations in China, the preference for boys is still firmly rooted among many communities and, for some families, the newly implemented three-child policy offers another opportunity to try for a boy.
In May, the Chinese government updated its two-child policy from 2016 that loosened its 35-year-long one-child policy. Now, parents can have three children without worry of facing fines, although specific policy details have not been announced.
China is facing a demographics emergency with a rapidly ageing population coupled with the lowest birth rate since the Great Famine, which ended 60 years ago. The three-child policy is an attempt to incentivise families to have more babies.
However, the policy was met with widespread doubt about its ability to impact Chinese demographics materially. For many families – especially in urban centres – financial pressures, intense work expectations and the high pressures of child-rearing are putting people off from having even one child, much less three.
But in more affordable parts of China, usually rural areas, the three-child policy is an opportunity to have a much-desired boy – especially for parents who already have two girls.
Recent surveys by research teams of the National Bureau of Statistics in three cities in the provinces of Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shandong showed increased willingness to have three kids in rural areas. One theory is that traditional beliefs, such as “the more children, the greater the blessing”, are more widely shared there.
In Yancheng, Jiangsu province, nearly 12 per cent of rural residents surveyed said they wanted a third child, about 9 percentage points higher than those living in urban areas. In Jinan, Shandong province, and Jinhua, Zhejiang province, this ratio was higher by about 7 and 3 percentage points respectively.
Hoping for a boy
Shi Wei, a mother in her 20s who is expecting her third baby, is one of these people.
When she found out she was pregnant with her third child in April, she regularly prayed online for a boy.
She already has two girls, and the woman, from Luzhou, in southwest China’s Sichuan province, has been updating her third pregnancy journey on the short video platform Douyin, with nearly all the posts tagged “I want a boy”.
Under each of her posts, dozens of comments followed her format and were tagged “I sincerely want a healthy boy”.
The pressure mainly came from her family, she said. “Grandpa wishes you were a grandson. Daddy wishes you were a son. Your elder sisters wish you were a little brother! Mummy shoulders so much pressure but only wants you to be healthy,” Shi wrote in her latest post.
“I have two daughters, and I do want a boy. But if it were a girl again, it would still be my baby,” she told the South China Morning Post.
Other families are not as open-minded to the idea of having only girls. In the years following the implementation of the one-child policy, pressures to have a boy resulted in widespread sex-based abortions, adoptions or abandonment.
Hu Zhan, a professor at the Fudan University Centre for Population and Development Policy Studies, said increasing the number of total births allowed by law, and reducing prejudices against girls, could help change the imbalance between the two sexes.
“For this exercise, let’s assume every couple must have a son. In the past, every couple was only allowed to have one child, so there was more interference before a boy finally arrived. Now, as parents are given more opportunities, the chances of baby girls being aborted could be much lower,” he said.
To prevent the abortion of girls, the Chinese government banned fetal sex identification in 2003. But many people found loopholes, such as getting the DNA tested in Hong Kong to figure out the sex.
China’s preference for boys is visible in the country’s sex ratio. For every 100 girls born in China, 111.3 newborns are boys. The ratio peaked in 2004 at 121 male births for every 100 females. According to the UN Population Fund, the sex ratio in populations that do not manipulate their births should be between 104-106 boys for every 100 girls.
Professor Yuan Xin, a population expert from Nankai University, said the imbalance between girls and boys at birth in China is the result of various factors besides the preference for boys.
“One other important reason is the difference of male and female in their social and economic interests. For example, there is still a strong tendency for family businesses to be inherited by sons, and babies usually have the fathers’ surname. During our working years, society still prefers men to women,” he noted.
Yuan added that the social impact of a demographic shift would likely not be seen for decades.
“Our sex ratio at birth has been abnormal for 40 years. Even if we get back to normal from today, we need another 80 years – assuming the average life expectancy is about 80 years old – for all the effects of the imbalance to fade away,” he said.
The gender imbalance also created knock-on effects, such as human trafficking gangs that transported women from nearby countries to become brides to men who cannot find a woman to marry.
Today, there are poverty-stricken areas in China called “bachelor villages” where men find it nearly impossible to find a wife.
Women from primarily Asian countries are being trafficked into China and are often tricked or coerced into arranged marriages.
Yuan said the gender imbalance means many men feel a wounded pride when they are unable to get married, indirectly increasing the possibilities of crimes related to sex.
Human Rights Watch noted in 2019 that increased media attention, and that human trafficking creates tensions with regional neighbours, is increasing pressures to fix the issue in China, but it remains a problem in the country.
A truism across China is that its low birth rate results from pressures created by society, not laws or government.
For families trying for another baby, the stresses of motherhood are unlikely to be diminished much under the new rules, but, at least, there is less worry about breaking the law.
In April, China’s central bank said China should scrap family planning policies altogether. Wang, the Shandong mother, sees this on the horizon.
“Because we already allow three kids for each family, I would guess the policy would only loosen in the future.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.