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19 Jun 2021 23:51
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  •   Home > News > International

    China's three-child policy is designed to bring on a baby boom, but its young adults are 'lying flat'

    As Chinese authorities push urban couples to have three children to boost the country's ailing fertility rates, young people counter with a lifestyle centred around minimising spending, working and socialising.

    China wants its young people to have more babies, but for some of the country's millennials, procreation couldn't be further from their minds.

    This week's announcement of the three-child policy, aimed at encouraging couples in China's urban areas to have three children, has been met with ridicule.

    Many social media users noted they couldn't begin to afford a second child, let alone a third, in a country where a strict one-child policy has dramatically shaped the society.

    On Weibo, user Sivan said: "I dare not have even one child, what's the point of talking about three?"

    In fact, even before the family planning news broke, young people were opting in to a new social trend that is all about checking out from society and its pressures — "tang ping", or "lying flat".

    State media censors and criticises 'lying flat'

    Lying flat refers to a defeatist lifestyle, where people stop working, desiring material acquisition, and tap out of any social life – sometimes for good. 

    The phrase has been coined by the young generation in response to increasing social anxiety and pressure, and around the push to have more children, as well as the increasingly unaffordable associated costs.

    Critics believe by lying flat, young people are participating in a kind of non-cooperation movement, rather than surrendering themselves to China's oppressive work culture where they see little hope of social mobility.

    For more than 35 years from 1980, couples in China's urban areas were prohibited from having more than one child, and faced large fines, or even forced abortion and sterilisation if caught.

    The country eased that and moved to a two-child policy in 2015.

    Now, China wants families to have three children, as it looks to boost its population after it was recently revealed the country's population growth had dipped to its slowest pace since the 1960s.

    Immediately before the release of the three-child policy, several state media outlets in China published articles criticising lying flat and called the trend shameful.

    Related social media groups have also been censored.

    On May 30, social media platform Douban removed a popular lying flat group, and many posts containing the phrase were deleted.

    Comments on China's social media platform Weibo following state media Xinhua's post on the three-child policy were quickly removed.

    Another online vote was deleted after over 90 per cent of people ticked a box saying they would not consider a third child at all.

    However, that has not shut down discussion — another lying flat group on social media platform Baidu Tieba now has over 180,000 members.

    Birth rate push adds more pressure 

    Lucy Yu, 32, lives in Beijing and is expecting twins in September.

    In Lucy's eyes, lying flat is a fantasy.

    She uses the phrase all the time but can never practise it in reality.

    "I use the word to mock myself, like others do too, but then just continue with what I've been doing," she said.

    "It's a way young people come up with self-mockery. When we are too tired or feel a great deal of pressure, we want to 'lie flat' for a moment and leave the hard work behind.

    "It's just a saying. How could you really lie flat?"

    Ms Yu chatted with colleagues who are older than her — they were born in the 1970s — after the new policy was announced.

    "They actually wanted a second child, but the two-child policy came too late," she said.

    "That generation had siblings and they were relatively more affluent, but they didn't have the chance."

    But for younger people, it's a different story.

    "Ordinary city, working-class people are struggling to make ends meet, so when the three-child policy comes out, they tend to feel that it's none of their business," she said.

    "It's too tiresome and only creates unnecessary burdens for ourselves.

    "I haven't counted how much money it will cost to have two children, but I'll raise them in a rich way if I have money, and raise them in a poor way if I don't have money. They'll grow up anyway."

    Anabel Ye is a 20-year-old university college student majoring in finance management, who identifies herself as one of the lying-down youth.

    "I am a bit lying down already. There are too many amazing people everywhere," she said.

    "Often, I found my efforts were not rewarded. Again and again, my passions were grounded."

    Ms Ye believes the new policy could lead to a better future for China, but worries about the concerns it causes for the younger generation.

    "I think the mortality rate of young people is also getting higher, many people died young because of physical and psychological issues associated with high pressure," she said.

    She might have children in the future, but only one or two, and that will depend on her circumstances.

    "To give a child a good family and educational environment is not easy today, apart from that I also have to work. I don't think I'll have time and energy [to have more]," she said.

    "Two children is ideal, but I also fear I might not want to get married or have children because of the increasing pressure."

    One-child policy not sole cause of low fertility rate

    Guo Fei, a professor of management at Macquarie University's Centre for Workforce Futures, thinks the increased child limit is a good idea, but is uncertain if it will have the desired outcome.

    "China's low fertility started, actually, [at] the same time when China started to experience rapid economic growth, and rapid urbanisation and modernisation," she said.

    "The low fertility rate was not only the result of the one-child policy."

    Professor Guo said the underlying reasons for China's low fertility were actually socioeconomic.

    Cost of living pressures are making things like education become unaffordable for many, and that has been deterring many from becoming parents.

    Professor Guo thinks improving parental leave arrangements could help.

    "If it's the company's burden, then couples or mothers who will have children will be discriminated against, they will be disadvantaged, because enterprise will be paying for their leave," she said.

    "It's a norm and cultural attitude problem. In addition to the economic incentive, they also need to change attitudes towards childbearing women and older childbearing couples."

    If China doesn't do more to encourage people to have children, it could end up like South Korea, which faces the potential risk of having negative population growth. 

    But those with the financial means will likely embrace the chance to have larger families, Professor Guo said.

    "From the data we have from looking at the second child [policy], we have started to see women who have resources and higher education — the well-off women — tend to have higher intention to have a second child."

    Equitable parental leave needed

    Wang Yaqiu, a China researcher from Human Rights Watch, has recently investigated China's previous two-child policy and gender discrimination in the workplace.

    Ms Wang found the three-child policy might lead to companies becoming even less willing to hire women.

    Gender discrimination in the workplace worsened when the one-child policy was replaced with the two-child policy.

    "For 35 years, most professional women were only expected to take one period of maternity leave and had one child to take care of at home. That's what employers expect," Ms Wang said.

    "When you hire a woman, if she already has a child, you know that she's not going to take another maternity leave.

    "Companies started to worry. That makes companies even less willing to hire women."

    Like Professor Guo, Ms Wang thinks a parental leave scheme and anti-discrimination laws need to be implemented along with the three-child policy.

    "There is an issue with pregnancy-based firing at jobs," she said.

    "It could be worse because now employers could potentially expect three maternity leaves."

    Because there is no mandatory paternity leave, organisations don't face the same outlay for fathers who are having a child, so it's seen more costly to hire women than men in China.

    To fix this, China needs to make equitable parental leaves for both men and women, Ms Wang said.

    She believes the backlash against the three-child policy from the lying flat followers is for two reasons.

    "There are a lot of concerns with access to education, access to housing, access to health care, are those practical reasons that people don't want to have children."

    The other reason, according to Ms Wang, is that the trauma left by the one-child policy still haunts many families today.

    "To a lot of families it was the policy enforced in such a brutal way, through forced abortion, forced sterilisation. Now, the government found that the policy resulted in an aging population and we want more children," she said.

    "Of course, people are going to become cynical — 'You controlled my body for so long, now you want me to go the other direction?'"

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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