My brother is an only child
The Thousand Faces of China PART 2
Photos, text and video Antonio Faccilongo

My Brother is an Only Child

China is ageing at the same rate as its economy is growing. Its population growth rate is experiencing a considerable reduction due to the decrease in births, setting the foundations not only for potential demographic and economic crises in the near future but a political one as well.

Furthermore, the global upheaval due to the coronavirus pandemic which began in Wuhan, has forced millions of Chinese to social distancing, causing a considerable decrease in the number of pregnancies in the first months of 2020 and probably throughout 2021 as well.

For years China implemented a series of policies aimed at slowing down the world’s most populous nation’s growth, including its notorious single child law. The long-term effect of such a policy is that today China has a negative demographic growth. In 2019 the number of new-borns was the lowest in the last 60 years at a constant 1.04%. Such a significant decrease in births and a rise in life expectancy mean that soon the work force will not be able to support such a numerous old age population.

A child sleeps on a bench in the garden of the forbidden city in Beijing

By 2050, the percentage of people over 60 years of age will rise to 34%, while the percentage of people within the working age range will decrease to 51%. That means only 1.5 workers per pensioner. This type of rapid inversion has potentially disastrous repercussions on the economy and social stability. Since 2016 the Chinese government, in the attempt to find a solution and counter this trend, has modified and eased the one child policy, but figures show that births are still in decline.

An elderly Chinese woman sleeps in a chair. China is getting older older every day: the birth crisis already affects and will significantly affect the Chinese society and economy.

This regulation was introduced in 1978 with the aim of preventing excessive population growth. Since 2016 the Beijing government has implemented the «two children» policy, allowing this possibility to couples where one of the two partners is an only child. If during the 1980s and 1990s the low birth rate was determined by the ban on having more than one child, today the causes of this trend are to be found in dynamics of a social nature. Chinese families are free to choose to keep their families small and one of the main reasons for this is the cost of child services, increasing urbanization, the rising number of women working and high costs of education.

A young couple with their few-month-old baby in Taiyuan.

The expenses that couple face in building a family are high. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences the average cost of raising a child to the age of 16 in China amounts to 490,000 yuan. This figure is confirmed by Tao Zhang who tells us that their annual cost amounts to roughly 5.000€ year. The great majority of Chinese workers do not earn enough to support a child, let alone two.

A newborn is examined at Taiyuan Children’s Hospital. One of the reasons why even young married couples often do not want children is the difficulty of facing all the costs of raising a child and the lack of time they have due to long working hours.

Despite the turnover being generated by weddings being on the increase with costs rising by 25% a year, a decline in the number of marriages has been registered. According to Ministry of Civil Affairs data the number of marriages in 2019 was around 9.47 million, a drop from the 10.1 million of the previous year.

A photo agency in Taiyuan presents wedding service a week before the wedding. The costs for receptions are very high, as is the number of guests. In fact in China it is tradition to invite not only relatives and friends, but also acquaintances and their connections, making it increasingly difficult for young couples to take this step

In this case also the negative marriage trend has its roots mainly in economic and social issues. Young Chinese have taken a distance from the traditions of previous generations. Their scale of priorities has changed both through choice and due to necessity. For some of them staying single means great career prospects, while marriage no longer represents a necessity as it did for their parents. They get married in large cities, looking for the prospect of a better future and betting all their stakes, or almost, on their career.

A young couple eats at the cafeteria of a photo agency in Taiyuan. The agency provides wedding photos and video one week before the wedding. The marriage service can last up to 3 days, that’s why in these studios there are also services for catering and overnight stays.

However, the job market in large metropolises is extremely competitive and the exhausting work hours and elevated cost of living as well as an inefficient welfare system mean that an increasing number of young people are reluctant to set up a family. Finding a partner and making a relationship work requires the investment of time and energy, which this generation does not appear to have. Consequently the average age of newlyweds has also increased: if in 2000 it was 23 years of age, in 2017 it had gone up to 26.

A girl tries on a traditional wedding dress in a Taiyuan store

Another problem which affects young people is the great pressure put on by their families. According to popular Chinese culture people should get married very young and are considered too old if they haven’t by the age of 25 or 26. This creates high expectations and puts a lot of pressure on young people. In Beijing – but also in the rest of China – inside the Forbidden City parents as well as wedding agents meet twice a week to try and set up marriages for their sons and daughters who are considered too old to successfully do so themselves.

The window of a wedding dress shop in Taiyuan

Here they exchange photographs, curriculums and try to understand if the social and economic standings are satisfactory to both parties. A real bride and bridegroom market. The search for a partner is further complicated by the number of men being much higher than that of women. This is due to the one child policy which led many families in the country-side to “discard” females in favour of males who were considered more productive and could lend a hand with the hard rural life. Today this elevated number of men belonging to the lower social classes has difficulty in finding women of a higher social standing willing to marry them.

An old woman shows a photo of her family, in which there are many children, dating back to before the law on the only child

Another aspect which should be taken into consideration is the difficulty young Chinese have communicating with the opposite sex and establishing intimate relationships. The change in lifestyle of the young is increasingly characterized by an obsessive, in some cases even maniacal, use of technology and social media. The consequences of their compulsive use are evident: the young are totally unable to engage in social relationships and communicate with others in the real world.

A group of young girls has fun rollerblading. Another factor that discourages many young Chinese people from relating to the opposite sex and growing up to have children is the highly competitive stresses of the Chinese labor and social system.

45% of Chinese male adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19 today say they have no interest in love or sex. Living almost exclusively through electronic gadgets can cause a sense of alienation and a detachment which as a consequence is changing social relations and particularly the way youths are engaging with each other. Contact in real life has become mor rare and for this reason harder.

A couple on a boat in a pond in Beijing. The girl “rented” a boyfriend for a few hours using a special app created with the intent to help young girls who are not familiar with the opposite sex. The purpose of the meet-up is to learn simple things like walking hand-in-hand or eating an ice cream cone on a date.

The government of Beijing has so far had a timid approach to try and curb the problem, the measures it has implemented have not had the desired effects. A number of state-supported services have been established in the attempt to meet the need for a sentimental education.

A young married couple chat while sitting on the bed in their villa in Huaxi.

For example, through an app it is possible to “rent” a boyfriend or girlfriend by the hour, not for sex purposes, but to learn how to behave with the other gender doing simple activities like going for a walk holding hands or discovering how one should behave when in a relationship.

Photos, text and video Antonio Faccilongo