Legacies of Republican-Era Population Policy in the Modern Two-Child Policy
Henry, Molly R
Fears of a demographic crisis in China have led the Chinese government to relax its one-child policy to a two-child policy. Policies intended to reduce the cost of childbearing have not successfully raised the birth rate, and the government instead encourages women to take on the work of childcare and domestic labor. Comparing gender politics and intellectual debates on national population policy in the 1911-49 Republican Era and the present, this paper finds that in both eras, authoritarian governments advocated for a gender ideal that combined appropriated Confucian traditions with a modern nationalist ideal of women’s citizenship, encouraging a focus on family in reaction to individualism, economic changes, and feminist challenges. Cultural, political, and intellectual discourses on gender shaped progressive intellectuals’ beliefs about women, population, and reproduction. Chinese Communist leaders were aware of the discussion on population policy, first consciously rejecting state birth planning, then adopting it with a “socialist” justification. This paper contextualizes Chinese population policy’s origins in pre- Communist programs of nation-building and modernization, and argues birth limitations have not been abandoned because of the enduring belief among political elites that it is the state’s responsibility to create “modern” small families for national economic productivity and citizen “quality.” My research finds parallels between modern and historical Chinese political anxieties about development and modernity, state control of the population, independent feminist activism, and globalized capitalism.