I was on my way back from Shanghai last week just as China announced a seemingly profound change in government policy. For the first time in decades, Chinese families would be allowed to have two children, not one.
Authorities said they were responding to looming labor shortages and an aging population, reversing a one-child policy established in 1979 to control population growth and protect water and other resources. The one-child rule had been relaxed over the years, first for rural couples (if their first child was a girl) and then for parents who are themselves only children.
The full expansion of the two-child rule was hailed in China and around the world as a huge development. In theory, it is. But I think it will mean little in the lives of most Chinese. I'm not a demographer or an expert on Chinese society. I do, however, have both an academic and professional interest in women's rights and women's roles, and on a personal trip I made it my business to inquire about the lives of working mothers.
Over a two-week period I talked with educated, professional women in their childbearing years. What they told me in Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and Suzhou convinced me that the change in policy would have little effect, if any.
That's because legal limits are only one reason why Chinese couples don't have more than one child. Other reasons include: the maddening logistics and crushing cost of urban living in China; the difficulty of relying on retired grandparents for child care; the exorbitant price of early childhood education and preschool, which are only offered at private facilities; the pervasive need to pay bribes to get kids into neighborhood public primary schools; and an ancient but still influential dowry tradition that forces families of sons to buy property and assume mortgages for them when they marry.
Rearing children in a busy modern society is difficult in any country. Working mothers face tough choices and sacrifices every minute of the day.
But those choices seemed to me especially excruciating in China. Woman after woman explained to me that it was economics and the complexities of everyday life, not the limits of the law, which caused them to remain one-child moms. I spent two days in Beijing with one such woman. She told me that she and her husband were only children, so they had permission to have two children. They are the parents of a four-year-old boy. But, she told me they had no interest in having another child, and it wasn't because they already had a son (the much preferred gender).
They simply had neither the money nor the time. She and her husband work long hours at good middle class jobs. Still, they could barely afford the costs. Their apartment was tiny and the private kindergarten too expensive. And, as it was, they barely saw the son they were supposed to be rearing.
In China, grandparents play a central role in caring for and even housing their grandchildren. That would seem to make child rearing, and having more than one child, easier. But what I discovered in the cities was that this was rarely true.
Take the case of the woman in Beijing. Her mother had worked in government factories from an early age, and was forced to retire at 45. (For most women the mandatory retirement age for government factory workers is 50.) Like many grandparents, she now was expected to provide childcare for her grandchild and did. But the arrangement was difficult logistically and emotionally. Yes, the grandmother lived in Beijing, but the traffic was so horrendous and housing so scarce that she was a two-hour commute away so the son lived with his grandmother who had more room. As a result this woman saw her son at best two nights a week, and only when she could manage to stay over at her mother's apartment.
The woman hopes that she and her husband can move to an apartment closer to her mother-in-law's, because the primary schools are better there, but so far they can't afford it. And even if they could, they might not be able to get their son into the local school because there were hundreds of kids applying for 65 spaces. Bribes to obtain school slots are commonplace.
It was all too difficult and uncertain to consider a second child.
So they had made the issue moot in what, to me as American, was a shocking way: they had sold their right to a second child back to the government in exchange for a monthly stipend. They needed the money and could not change their mind now.
The first woman in Beijing was lucky that her son was in the same city. Often the reliance on grandparents can separate families even more dramatically. I met a woman in Beijing who had grown up in a rural mining town near Mongolia. She was a second child. Her parents had defied the old law to have her and lost their jobs as a result. She and her parents had moved to Beijing. But most of her friends from the mining town had parents who still lived there. They were forced to send their kids back to the town -- a 24-hour train ride away -- to live. They saw their children at most twice a year. The town, she said, is now an eerie mix of grandparents and grandchildren. Why have TWO children living so far away? One was hard enough.
Chinese tradition can play a limiting role. The conventional wisdom is that Chinese parents only want sons. That is generally true, but it depends on the circumstances. A woman in Shanghai told me that she was the mother of a son but did not dare risk having another. Boys were prestigious but too expensive. Parents of a son, she said, were expected to buy an apartment for him and his future bride when the time came. Furthermore, educating a son often costs much more than a daughter, because of the school system and the assumption of higher professional ambition.
Easily available abortion is a limiting factor, obviously. But combined with the still-prevalent preference for boys, it has created an unexpected secondary problem. Many parents selectively abort female fetuses. The result is an uneven population where there are many more men then women of childbearing age. Now these women have more independence then they've ever had and as they said to me, modern Chinese women want "the three Cs": condominiums, cars and credit cards. And for the first time they have more men to choose from and to decide whom to marry. The old rural values of large families -- a reality in all traditional societies -- have given way to new priorities.
The ideal now may be closer to that of a woman I met in Shanghai. She had connections and money. Her father had held a top position in the Chinese Air Force. Her mother was a nurse. They have now re-tired. She had met her husband at a university in Shanghai. He is an engineer who works at a U.S. company and she has a very good job. They both have traveled extensively throughout the world. They are both only children. Even before the change in policy, they were allowed to have two children. But so far they have none, and she didn't seem eager to become a mother any time soon.
Amy Nathan is Washington, D.C.-based tech lawyer. She was formerly a journalist with The Washington Post and Gannett.