A child is supported on the balance beam during classes at a gym

China now allows 3 kids per family, but many couples say they can’t afford it

As China grapples with an aging population and the lowest birth rate in decades, the government is urging couples to have a third child.

The World

A child is supported on the balance beam during classes at the Inspire Sports private gym in Shanghai, China, June 18, 2016.

Andy Wong/AP/File photo

When the Chinese government announced a relaxation of the two-child policy, allowing couples to have three children, reactions were not quite what the government was hoping for. 

“We all thought it was a joke. ... It was so funny, so unbelievable. Nobody took it seriously.”

Christina Wang, teacher, Shanghai, China

“We all thought it was a joke,'' said Christina Wang, a teacher in Shanghai. “It was so funny, so unbelievable. Nobody took it seriously.” 

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After the announcement, the internet exploded with jokes about couples “dying under the pressure” of taking care of aging parents and raising three kids at the same time. 

But the situtaion is no joke for the government. As the largest population in the world, China now also has the lowest birth rate in decades, according to the latest census. 

Wang and her husband love kids. Nine years ago, before the government allowed couples to have more than one child, she quit her university job and angered her parents by having a second child, illegally. 

But she’s ruled out having another. 

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“I certainly won’t be having a third child,” she said. “Even if I was 10 years younger, I wouldn’t consider it.”

Wang’s not alone. 

Right after the news broke Monday afternoon, the state news service Xinhua put out an online poll. The response was overwhelming: 23,000 people said they didn’t want a third child; 1,200 said they did. 

The poll was abruptly taken offline and the comments section removed.

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Ashley Fu, a new mom in Shanghai, thought that was hilarious. Her six-month-old daughter is waking six or seven times a night, and she’s exhausted. She recently quit her corporate job because of lack of sleep. Her husband wants a second child, but Fu says that would be a stretch.

“I don’t think this policy is for people like me. It’s for people who need the policy … for super rich people, or people in the village, but not people like me."

Ashley Fu, new mom, Shanghai, China

“I don’t think this policy is for people like me. It’s for people who need the policy … for super rich people, or people in the village, but not people like me,” she told The World. 

For people in the village — in other words, rural areas — another child is an extra pair of hands. But most people live in cities now, and having children is expensive.

Jiang Tian, a stay-at-home dad in Shanghai, is raising two kids.

“I don’t even want to think about having a third child,” he said. 

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“Two kids are already taking up my whole life. How can I even consider a third? Time, experience, energy, mental capacity, finances … I’m maxed out on all of these."

Jiang Tian, stay-at-home dad, Shanghai, China

“Two kids are already taking up my whole life. How can I even consider a third? Time, experience, energy, mental capacity, finances … I’m maxed out on all of these,” he said. 

All of this is a huge problem for China, whose population is aging, while its workforce is also shrinking. 

From 1980 to 2015, the government allowed most families only one child. Beijing then realized the one-child policy had worked maybe too well. The government tried to correct the sliding birth rate by allowing everyone to have up to two kids, but by then, it was too late. 

An entire generation of only children were simply not interested in having a second child. With marriage rates also dropping, even one child is a stretch for some.

Iris Pang, an economist studying China, said the government is extremely worried.

“They may also believe that this is not the best solution to increase the population, but for now, this is the quick solution,” she said. 

She also said it doesn’t matter how many kids the government allows.

“It's not about the number. It's about the monetary resources and the time resources to raise a child."

Iris Pang, economist focused on China

“It's not about the number. It's about the monetary resources and the time resources to raise a child,” she said. 

Young people are being pragmatic, Pang continued. If they were raised without siblings and married another only-child, they’re probably already worried about time and money. They know they’ll be taking care of their aging parents, raising their own kids, and then helping out with their grandkids.

Jane Zhang grew up in rural Ningxia, but now lives in Shanghai with her husband and one-year-old son. She said at home, most of her friends and family have two or three kids. It’s very normal. But she’s not considering another child, yet.

“The pace of life is much faster here in Shanghai, and the cost of living is so high. You need a lot of resources, so a second child would be much more expensive."

Jane Zhang, mother of one, Shanghai, China

“The pace of life is much faster here in Shanghai, and the cost of living is so high. You need a lot of resources, so a second child would be much more expensive,” she said. 

Christina Wang, the teacher with two children, said the new policy fails to take those expenses into consideration.

“It’s like, the number of young people is decreasing, the factories don’t have enough workers, so you need to be patriotic and have more kids,” she said. “It’s just not fair.” 

Even in smaller cities, she said, parents need financial support to help with child care, schooling and apartment costs that come along with having a larger family.   

Jiang Tian, the work-from-home dad, said pure patriotism isn’t enough to sway him.

"Let the people with financial resources be patriotic then. The rest of us can be patriotic in other ways, unless the government gives us something in return. How about some extra points on the college entrance exam for having a third child? Then, maybe I’d think differently. If you don’t give us help, and just ask us to be patriotic, I just don’t think anyone is going to be that selfless,” he said. 

These days, young people are focusing more on themselves, says Iris Pang. 

“For the urban population, especially the middle-income class, they are more reluctant to have children, not even one,” she said. 

Jovial Zhou, 29, is one of them. She’s single and works as a maternity nurse in Shanghai. When asked how many kids she plans to have, she doesn’t even skip a beat: “zero.”

"I don’t want to have kids and waste my time. Some people will think this sounds very selfish. But, sorry, this is my decision.”

Jovial Zhou, 29, maternity nurse, Shanghai, China

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She doesn’t care about the pressure from her parents. “‘Cuz I only have one chance to be myself. So, for now, I don’t want to have kids and waste my time. Some people will think this sounds very selfish. But, sorry, this is my decision.”

Many people feel that it always should have been their decision.

The government may now find out that they can keep people from having children — but they can’t make people have more.