Among the top proposals trending on Chinese social media from this year’s Two Sessions, one of them has sparked another heated debate online. The motion is on legalising egg freezing for single women. One of the delegates, Doctor Sun Wei, who is also a fertility specialist from Shandong province, brought the storm upon herself by raising objection to the much anticipated reform.
Frankly, there is nothing groundbreaking in any of Doctor Sun’s arguments. Her voiced concerns about a slippery slope to black market trading for human eggs and commercial surrogacy (which is also banned in China) are long-held party lines by government officials. Even her recommendation to “get married and have children at the right time” sound just like another well-meaning family elder, which I am sure, rings a bell with many of child-bearing age in China.
The backdrop: In China, egg freezing is currently only allowed for married couples under extremely limited circumstances. This include women with fertility issues whose spouse encounter difficulty in sperm extraction during fertility treatment as well as those with cancer who would like to preserve fertility before starting treatment. The obvious exclusion of unmarried women has prompted uproar as the Chinese millennials are getting married later, or increasingly not at all.
The debate went viral last year when Teresa Xu hit the headlines, by taking the Beijing Obstetrics and Gynaecology hospital to court for violating her personal rights after being rejected the egg freezing procedure there. What also became well publicised at the time is that there are, ironically, no such obstacles for single men for sperm freezing, supported by a regulation passed as early as 2003.
Of note: While some, rightly so, caution against the unproven success rate of fertilising frozen eggs and the risks of overpromising it as a panacea for declining fertility with age, criticism on Chinese social media are nonetheless scathing to say the least:
“Technical risk and reproductive right are two different topics. This is a right that every woman should have. We should leave it to the scientists to improve the [egg freezing] success rate over time.”
“I am speechless when I see the news…all my friends only got married after 30 and I had my first child at 36. Women are increasingly independent these days and many do not wish to get stuck in a marriage just because they want to have their own children. To be honest, many husbands did nothing more than contributing a sperm anyway.”
The Flying Sesame take:
The easiest way to win friends (or in some cases make enemies) on Chinese social media is to express your opinions about marriage and motherhood.
China as a society is experiencing growing pains. Younger generations are increasingly torn between self-discovery, individuality and traditional family value. And the clash is often not only generational but is also driven by class, region, rural versus urban which all make the topic extremely divisive. While the fight to legalize egg freezing, arguably, can be viewed as a “first world problem” for China’s urban middle class, it nonetheless shines an interesting light on the shifting attitude to motherhood and feminism in China as a whole.
As a Chinese woman myself, I often find myself educating my western counterparts about gender topics. Interestingly, people are often struck by China’s female labour participation rate and professional achievement. It not only stands out in the largely Confucian East Asia but also compare favourably to the developed countries including the Nordics, often seen as the global leader for gender equality. In fact, my own boss, who has spent decades in London’s cut-throat financial service industry, noticed the overrepresentation of Chinese female professionals in an industry notorious for a lack of diversity. I am very surprised I have to say. Coming from a country like Switzerland, this is definitely good food for thoughts.” He remarked.
Chinese women’s active role in the economy can be traced back to the country’s communist past. The communist philosophy, epitomised by the catchy slogans from Mao Zedong such as “women can hold up half of the sky”, has a strong belief in gender equality in economic participation. For my parents’ generation, pretty much everyone who can work has a full time job and there was clear social stigma associated with not working.
On top of that, decades of single child policy, as contentious as it is, has given many girls the education opportunities which they may otherwise not have. As for the mothers, if you have only one child, it is naturally a lot easier to juggle work and family life. As such, stay at home moms only started to emerge in the Chinese urban areas in the last decade. Millennial girls of my generation typically grow up in a dual income family with grandparents or professional nannies helping out with childcare. Our parents’ experience of having it all set the bar high for what is expected of my generation.
However, is China a role model for gender equality? The reality, paradoxically, would say otherwise. Legal protection against discrimination, which are taken for granted in the West, is often very weak. The most glaring example is bias during the recruitment process. It is common and widely accepted to have job descriptions blatantly stating age, gender and appearance requirement. HR and interviewers can easily get away with asking discriminating personal questions, such as your marital and childbearing status. Some may go as far as requesting female employees not to have children within a certain period of commencing employment.
Chinese family law does not tend to recognise the value of home-making. For women, this means that if you choose to become a stay at home mother, you are doing this at your own risk. There is little prospect of getting maintenance payments in the case of divorce. A divorce could also make women potentially homeless after the Supreme Court’s new interpretation of the 1980 Marriage Law came into force in 2011. The culture of looking down on housewives are ubiquitous in the popular media. As far as I recall, for almost every Chinese movie or TV drama which has a stay at home mother character, their husbands inevitably have an affair and their marriage ending up in a bitter divorce.
So to summarize, Chinese women’s collective success outside home is the result of a strong working culture, the parental expectation and peer pressure to “lean in”, and crucially their own tenacity and perseverance in a rather hostile environment. But there is increasingly a sense among Chinese women that they are simply exhausted and want to run away from all these. They are sitting in between a rock and hard place, pressured to marry and become mothers (ideally before turning 30) while expected to excel professionally and without the security to opt for staying at home even if they want to. So it is no surprise that many express their frustration by turning their back to marriage and putting off having children.
When China finally relaxed the one-child policy in 2016, the reaction among my female friends ranged from indifference to utter dismay. The fear was that being able to have more than one child will exacerbate family pressure and lead to more discrimination at the workplace.
As far as I can tell, there is no remedy to China’s mounting demographic crisis unless it truly embrace the trend of changing family structure, offer better protection of women’s rights and more importantly, freeing women from the invisible burden of having it all so that they can forge a path of their own.
The government ought to be pleased that there are still people pushing for the legalisation of egg freezing. Otherwise, soon there may be no desire to have children at all.
“Only men need apply” – Gender Discrimination in Job Advertisements in China (Human Rights Watch)
How a ban is forcing China’s single women to put their fertility on ice overseas (South China Morning Post)
Can China recover from its disastrous one-child policy (The Guardian)