Over the course of two weeks in China, I saw several versions of signs like this:
This one is posted in the old-town section of Nanxun (now a tourist attraction), naturally, above a urinal.* Invoking civilization may be overblown for the problem of men standing too far away (which didn’t seem to be especially extreme, compared to U.S. urinals), but China has a long tradition of using dramatic slogans to call citizens to higher common purpose. Here was one that struck me, in downtown Shanghai:
This is from the Shanghai public health authorities. (No, I don’t know Chinese, but I love trying to use a dictionary, and I ask people.) The fascinating thing about that is the composition of the civilized family pictured: father, mother, two grandparents, and two children.
Fertility rates in China are well below replacement level, as they are in other East Asian countries, meaning the average woman will have fewer than two children in her lifetime and the population will eventually shrink (barring immigration). China’s total fertility rate nationally is probably at about 1.5. In Shanghai, a metro area with some 20 million people, the norm was already one child per family before the one-child policy was implemented in 1980, and fertility has continued to fall; it most recently clocked in at a shockingly low .88 per woman as of 2008.
Reasons for ultra-low fertility are varied and contested, but likely culprits include expensive housing and education costs for children. It was reported to me informally that about half of children can go to college-track high schools instead of vocational schools, and that is determined by a standardized test administered at the end of middle school. That puts tremendous pressure on parents with middle-class aspirations. Which helps explain the extensive system of expensive supplemental private education, as promoted by this ad I saw in an upscale mall:
The website for this company promises, “Super IQ, Wealth of Creativity, Instant Memory Capacity.” How many kids are you going to send to this private program?
One of the five perfect, super-involved parents at the parent-child class is a man, which may or may not seem like a lot. Of the many people taking their kids to school on scooters, I didn’t see a lot with more than one child, and the only picture I got was of one piloted by the apparent dad (note also something you don’t see here much: schoolboy in pink shirt):
This recalls another probable cause of low-low fertility, the gender-stuck family and employment practices that keep women responsible for children and other care work (scooter dads notwithstanding). In conjunction with women outperforming men in college graduation rates these days (as in the U.S.), this indirectly reduces fertility by leading to delayed marriage, and directly reduces fertility by causing parents to decide against a second child.
The weak system of care hurts on both ends, with people having fewer children because raising them is expensive, and people needing children to take care of old people because public support is lacking. This may be one reason why grandparents can have a positive effect on parents’ motivation to have children, as reported by Yingchun Ji and colleagues (including Feinian Chen, who hosted my visit). The fact that it is common for grandparents to provide extensive care for their grandchildren, as Feinian Chen has described (paywall), presumably helps strengthen their pronatal case.
Lots of pictures of grandparents taking care of a single grandchild to choose from. Here’s one, from the (awesome) Shanghai Museum:
The one-child policy ended in 2016, and couples no longer have to get permission to have a first or second child (but they do for a third or more). This change alone, although a better-late-than-never thing, may not do much to increase birth rates. That is the conclusion from studies of families for whom the policy was relaxed earlier. Sadly, although birth rates were already falling dramatically in the 1970s and the one-child policy was not responsible for the trend, the policy still (in addition to large scale human rights abuses) created many millions of one-child families that will struggle to meet intergenerational care obligations in the absence of adequate public support. (Here’s a good brief summary from Wang Feng, Baochang Gu, and Yong Cai.)
This is a challenge for civilization.
The pictures here, and a few hundred more, are on my Flickr site under creative commons license.
* Americans who love the funny translations of signs in China may be in for some disappointment, as the Standardization Administration has announced plans to implement thousands of stock translations in the service sector nationwide.