The Changing Price of Motherhood

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Certificate Candidate at SAIS Nanjing

I heard a voice call out from the taxi’s radio: “Hello,” said a young woman, “I’m calling to ask about what to do with my second child.”

“Second child?” echoed the host. For the entirety of the afternoon, the taciturn and serious radio personality had been doling out blunt advice to listeners and callers. She spoke of direct approaches to child-rearing, and argued that men were too passive in relationships. The host now turned her attention to the caller, whose name was never identified. “Second child? Are you acting in accordance with the Family Planning Policy?” This, the more euphemistic name for China’s One-Child policy.

“No,” the caller responded, her voice growing quieter, “But as a mother, I wanted to know what I should do in these circumstances.”

“As a mother? You should be considering what you should do as a citizen to China. This isn’t a matter of what you want. The law is clear.” With these few sentences, the host had closed the conversation.

The taxi driver, who was also a woman, laughed, “How stupid. If she didn’t want to have to deal with this problem, she shouldn’t have gotten pregnant!”

As the caller’s line was disconnected, I was left with my thoughts, waiting in traffic for the next leg of my journey.

These exchanges were fitting for the time. Less than a month had passed since the Third Party Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party brought about one of the most profound policy changes in Chinese history: married couples, one of which must be an only child, could now have two children. Previously, both parents were required to be only children in order for a second sibling to even be considered.

The discrepancy between these conversations and this policy change is not surprising, as even the largest policy changes take significant time to sink into the public consciousness.

The caller’s fate follows a branched path now. Should she be discovered, her household will be fined significantly for violating the policy. If she or her family are unable to pay the fines and fees, which run up to $50,000 in major cities, the child faces an even worse fate. At the heart of this matter is HuKou, or the household registration. Every aspect of a citizen’s life is tied to this record: schooling, healthcare, transit ticketing, and access to public services. To say that HuKou manages the life and death of Chinese citizens is not a large exaggeration.

The caller’s second child will live constantly in their older sibling’s shadow. As a public citizen, she will live as a “black child,” a term used to evoke images of illicit black market operations. The odds of attending college or becoming a skilled laborer are stacked against this child already.

As I continue to wait in the taxi, in traffic still, I realize that the caller’s fate, despite new policy changes, is largely up to circumstance. The child’s parents likely lack financial resources. If she possessed the means and had been able to afford fines or skirt the rules of the policy, the mother would not have had to call in anonymously to the radio show on that autumn afternoon. Perhaps she would have already paid the consequences of bearing a second child.

Instead, the only victory that this mother can achieve is a pyrrhic one. If she chooses to give birth to the second child she desires, her path, and the path of her baby, become increasingly treacherous.

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