China Tiger Moms Turn Guardians of One-Child Policy as Law Eases

Rosa Xia, a 39-year-old mother in Shanghai, is allowed to have a second child. She doesn’t think she can afford it.

She reckons a fifth of the 6,000 yuan ($989) a month she earns as a Shanghai nanny goes to her 12-year-old daughter Amy: saxophone and ballet lessons, on top of food and school. Then there’s saving for her only offspring’s college education.

“She saw people playing saxophone on TV, got interested and asked for lessons. It’s expensive, so of course I’d rather she hadn’t asked, but I gave it to her anyway,” said the migrant worker, who scrimps on clothing and her own meals to give her daughter the chance of a better future.

Doting parents like Xia help explain why China’s move to ease family-planning rules is unlikely to reverse falling birth rates that have saddled the country with a shrinking labor pool and aging population.

While lifting the restrictions -- imposed through fines, forced abortions and sterilization -- may prove popular at home and with rights advocates abroad, attempts to unpick the state’s meddling with family sizes face roadblocks from Confucian tradition, urbanization and the rising costs and especially expectations wrought by China’s economic resurgence.

Following Japan

“The fact is, a huge change in mentality about family, children and future is evident,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based policy group. “China is heading in the direction of other low-fertility East Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.”

Cost is at the forefront of the minds of many parents.

Many baby goods cost more in China than they do in the U.S., partly because of Chinese parents’ willingness to pay up for their only progeny. A packet of 114 Procter & Gamble Co.’s Pampers Baby Dry diapers sells for 309 yuan on China’s website, about 12 percent more than a similar product on Wal-Mart’s online site in the U.S. Abbott Laboratories’ Similac Advance formula for babies younger than one costs 199 yuan on, 40 percent more than in the U.S.

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in late November approved rules that allow couples to apply for permission to have a second child where either parent is an only offspring. That loosened the policy that allowed a second baby if both parents are only kids.

China introduced the one-child policy in 1979 after the population jumped more than 70 percent in the three decades following the Communist Party’s civil war victory, even as the economy stagnated.

In fact, annual population growth was already in decline. It had dipped below 1 percent five years earlier and hasn’t breached the mark since -- this year, it will expand 0.45 percent to 1.36 billion people, according to U.S Census Bureau estimates. Japan’s population will shrink for a sixth year; South Korea and Taiwan’s will grow less than 1 percent.

Fewer, More Success

“They share common cultural values that place enormous emphasis on the success of their children,” said Wang Feng, a sociology professor at University of California, Irvine. “Chinese parents want their children to be successful, and they do this by having fewer and investing in them.”

Such aspirations have thrown up a group of so-called tiger moms, made famous by author Amy Chua in a book describing strict, disciplinarian Chinese mothers.

The corollary is inflation, both in the money and the time it takes to rear a child as parents wage an arms race to secure the best of the limited opportunities available -- raising the barrier to entry for a second child.

For example, to get into a good school, many parents pay a large “sponsorship fee” or buy an apartment in the area. To make them stand out, kids are signed up for expensive or unusual activities -- Xia proudly related how her daughter was top of her class in origami.

Fierce Competition

“Fierce competition and the social eagerness to get ahead or at least to stay on par with peers -- especially on things symbolizing success, such as house, car and other consumption goods -- are still the main forces that drive Chinese society,” said Cai Yong, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina.

Urbanization -- long established globally as an effective contraception -- is magnifying the effect. As more and more children enter cities, their parents are forced into competition for limited resources, Cai said. In Shanghai, the reported fertility level is 0.7 births per woman per lifetime.

Xinhua News Agency website reckons it costs 2.76 million yuan to take a child from birth to college in Beijing. The report on the state-owned news organization’s website cited an informal survey and calculations suggesting that a husband and wife earning the average per capita income would need to work for 23 years without eating and drinking to afford it.

Daughters Please

More than half the about 900 respondents in a separate informal survey after the policy announcement carried out by the Internet portal Sina said they wouldn’t have have a second child because the financial stress was too great.

The cost of bringing up a son is also turning a long ingrained Confucian preference for male children on its head.

In Shanghai, where men are expected to own their own home before they get married, daughters are becoming more popular, a government poll of 1,005 city residents showed in November. Almost 45 percent said they would feel less burdened with a girl as there would be no pressure to buy a house.

Even on the farm, where the extra hands that come with big families were once seen as a bonus, attitudes are changing. Wu Dehui, a 52-year-old asparagus farmer from Anhui province, said the eldest of his three sons chose to stop at one child.

One’s Enough

“These days, you have to send children to kindergarten, buy them all sorts of snacks and stuff,” said the tanned and small-built farmer with pronounced wrinkles around his eyes. “In my day, you never needed to do that.”

Sons are also expected to splurge on weddings these days, making them too expensive to raise, Wu and his wife said.

Ultimately, China’s system of residence permits, or “hukou,” may be the biggest added cost for migrant workers such as Shanghai-based nanny Xia. She sets aside about 2,000 yuan each month for unexpected medical bills, as the Jiangsu province native and her daughter are excluded from health and education benefits card-carrying Shanghai city residents get.

“With a child, you really need to plan and budget,” says Xia, who won’t spend more than 100 yuan on blouses so she can save for Amy’s education and medical costs. “I want a second child, I just can’t afford one.”

— With assistance by Liza Lin

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