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.