BEIJING — Menglin's boyfriend accompanied her to the clinic. It took less than 10 minutes for the doctor to place the contraceptive implant in Menglin's upper left arm. It's now very unlikely she'll get pregnant in the next three years. She is 31, a good age to give birth, but she is reluctant to start trying.
Young people with the same mindset as Menglin are a fast growing phenomenon. China started loosening its family planning policy in 2011 and lifted the one-child only control in 2016, but the country's fertility rate hasn't simultaneously gone up. In 2019, its total fertility rate was less than 1.52, the lowest since 1949. This is a number far lower than most developing countries. It's even lower than most developed countries.
There are various reasons for this hesitation to become a parent: the cost of living pressures brought about by astronomical housing prices, exorbitant educational expenses in urban areas and social problems resulting from the flaws in the country's legal system. More profoundly, it has been caused by the new desire to pursue personal happiness and the lifestyle choices of a generation raised to be self-centered as their family's only child.
Menglin says she simply can't find a single reason to have a child. After obtaining a master's degree in law, she entered the financial industry and earns a high income. Two years after graduation, she got a mortgage to buy a condominium in the southeastern city of Chengdu. Even though the value of the condo soared fourfold in the three years since she bought it, she still doesn't have a sense of security from it.
When she moved to Beijing, she found the housing prices even higher – 60,000 to 100,000 RMB (€7,000 - €12,850) per square meter. This financial pressure is too high even though she earns around 20,000 RMB a month while the annual salary of her boyfriend, an IT engineer, is over a million.
As the only child of his family, Menglin's boyfriend admits that his parents won't accept that he doesn't already have a child and that he doesn't envisage having one in the future. However, "In Beijing, the minimum price of a tiny apartment starts at four million. Unless I have a girlfriend with my kind of income and, on top of that, we get help from our parents on both sides, it's impossible to buy anything."
Beijing housing prices are between 60,000 to 100,000 RMB (€7,000 - €12,850) per square meter — Photo: Wong Zihoo
"I am willing to share the cost, but we need our parents to help at least with the down payment, 1.5 million RMB each, so that we can afford a two-room flat. But I just don't see much point."
"The cost of a mortgage to buy a home is a natural contraceptive," says Cangcang. She is 29 years old and has been married and living in Hangzhou, the capital of China's Zhejiang province, for five years. Cangcang and her husband share the financial burden of their mortgage. "What we earn essentially completely disappears just paying off our loan."
The rule of thumb there is that the ideal percentage of a housing loan or rental is around one third of a person's income. This allows some money to live and enjoy some happiness in life. Yet, Cangcang's mortgage takes up half of her salary and she is far from the exception, all her friends and colleagues in the same age group are more or less in the same boat.
"When you have to carry such a financial burden, it's natural that you lose any real interest in having children," she says. This corresponds with the study carried out by Yi Junjian and Yi Xingjian about Hongkong's fertility rate between 1971 and 2005. They found that as the house price index rose on average 1%, the total fertility rate would significantly drop by 0.45%.
When you have to carry such a financial burden, it's natural that you lose any real interest in having children.
Meanwhile, the cost of raising a child and the fierce competition for education is also daunting for younger generations. "I can't help feeling unhappy whenever I think of the way children are brought up today," says Cangcang. "They start going to the kindergarten at the age of 2 to 3. They learn English, piano and Lego at 4 or 5. And during this period, or even before a child is born, parents are already anxiously trying to find somewhere to live in a location where the child would be admitted to a good elementary school. And that's just the beginning, the children need to do extracurricular courses to help them prepare for entrance examination for middle schools as well as colleges later on," she says.
For Menglin who is not a native Beijinger, the problem is even more complicated. "Without the Beijing hukou (the household registration system which affects one's citizen rights), your child doesn't even have the right to a proper education in the capital."
And then there's the cost of raising a child in Beijing: "Sending a toddler to a kindergarten costs more than 10,000 RMB a month, which is my total salary. I'd prefer to just get a cat. It doesn't need to go to school, so I don't have to buy an apartment in a district with good schooling."
For a generation of only children, as is the case for both Cangcang and her husband, young people today in China also face a harsh reality – the burden of care when their parents become old.
The responsibility of supporting and caring for the four parents on both sides is hard enough, "yet it would be even harder for our child, if we were to have one, since he or she will be faced with six older people!"
Sending a toddler to a kindergarten costs more than 10,000 RMB a month — Photo: Wang Guansen/Xinhua via ZUMA Press
Cangcang is so envious of her parents' generation where one has sisters and brothers so that care of the old is much less of an issue. Her mother does try, though, to convince her that "you should learn from me, be optimistic and relaxed. Don't get stressed thinking about the idea of raising a child." Cangcang remains unpersuaded.
Meanwhile, Mengling's mom was recently diagnosed with a minor case of Alzheimers. Even though Mengling plans to go back to Chengdu eventually and fetch her parents to live with her by then, she can't imagine having to care for a child at the same time.
"Not only do we have to be healthy ourselves, we also have to pray our parents stay well too," says Cangcang, whose friend's father has recently been undergoing cancer treatment. "It's like an only child uses up his or her luck in the first 20 years of life, and then it's all downhill after that."
Cangcang doesn't even use contraceptives much simply because she doesn't need them. Both she and her husband do so much overtime, including weekends, that they are very tired by the time they go to bed. "We'd rather just sleep when we get to bed," she says.
But she is not alone battling stress and tiredness, as she found out with almost all her close friends. Sex life? Even once a month or every two months is lucky.
As the data released by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2020 shows, China's single adult population was 240 million in 2018, of whom 77 million live alone. It is expected that 92 million more will be added to the single population in 2021. In other words, one person out of five is either actively or passively staying single.
Zhichuan, 27 years old, is one of these singles who enjoys his quiet life with just enough income to support himself comfortably. He keeps a cat. Returning to his rented studio after work every day, he eats takeaways, feeds the cat, then reads or watches a film with his pet. "It's enough and beautiful this way for me," he says. He is convinced that he is better off without having to worry about a girlfriend's needs, buying a house and raising a child.
China's pet market was worth 202.4 billion yuan in 2019, with a compound growth rate of 20% in the past three years. Single people without children made up 65.2% of the population who kept a pet in 2017.
Menglin has two cats. She feeds them with the best cat food and has equipped her apartment with cat toys. For her, these cats are her family.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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