NOEL KING, HOST:
China's aging population is retiring faster than younger workers can replace them. That's in part why China abolished the one-child policy to allow families to have two children back in 2015. But the shadow of the one-child policy still looms large over potential mothers. NPR's Emily Feng talks to two single women who are desperate to have kids but whose ideas of family don't meet China's definitions.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY COOING)
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: When 31-year-old Ms. Liu found out she was pregnant in 2017, she decided to keep the baby. She always wanted children, and she was getting older. There was one catch; she was not married.
LIU: (Through interpreter) I just felt this was a small, living being, that I should keep her and that I had to work hard to create the conditions under which I could raise her.
FENG: Ms. Liu did not provide her full name because single motherhood still carries significant social stigma in China. Even though her parents and her close friends support her choice, most colleagues at the Shanghai insurance company she's worked at for nine years do not know she has a child.
LIU: (Through interpreter) employers would wonder - is it just you who cares for the child? If so, then how will you focus on work?
FENG: Chinese women have won limited freedoms in the last 40 years. They're more financially independent, getting married later - and when they do, getting divorced more often. Changing social mores are also affecting parenthood. More women are postponing motherhood. Some are even choosing to have children on their own.
But China's reproductive policies only specify married, heterosexual couples. They make zero mention of single mothers. They and their children live in a legal gray zone.
LI JUN: (Through interpreter) There is a blank space when it comes to single parents. For them, there is a catchall clause for punishing any situation that violates family planning.
FENG: Li Jun is a Shanghai lawyer. She is currently fighting a case in Shanghai court so unmarried woman can at least qualify for maternity insurance. Technically, the child of an unmarried woman can't even receive hukou, the equivalent of a U.S. Social Security number allowing them to go to school and access social services. Bigger cities and some provinces have started to change this, though.
Ms. Liu was able to get hukou for her child in Henan province, her home. But she's lived in Shanghai for nine years and wants to raise her child there. Even though Ms. Liu has Henan hukou, she could have gotten a Shanghai residence permit, which would have allowed her and her child access to some services in Shanghai.
LIU: (Through interpreter) For example, to access insurance and education, I need enough residence permit points. But they consider me to have violated family planning regulations. This is the thing that ashames (ph) me the most.
FENG: Shanghai authorities have docked points from Ms. Liu's residence permit application for being a single mother, which means that she and her child are cut off. She is considering moving back to Henan when her child grows up so she can attend public school.
STUART GIETEL-BASTEN: The Communist Party, in one way or another, has always been active in shaping families and encouraging particular kinds of families.
FENG: Stuart Gietel-Basten is demography professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He explains how Chinese family planning policy has always intervened to mold families.
GIETEL-BASTEN: Under Mao, it was - you should have more children. Right? China should grow. And then in the '70s, it's - OK, you should have much fewer children.
FENG: People who definitely don't fit Chinese-style family planning - single mothers having children through surrogates. Lee Qianmo is 41 and highly successful, having founded her own skincare product company in Shanghai. She's always wanted to be a mother and finally became pregnant in 2018. But a sudden onset of severe depression caused her to get an abortion.
LEE QIANMO: (Through interpreter) I thought about suicide. It was just one week, but I couldn't take it.
FENG: She still wants a child but fears she might run into complications again. As an unmarried woman, Lee would also have a difficult time qualifying for adoption. That's why she's looking into surrogacy. She's already spent tens of thousands of dollars on fertility treatments, but any child Lee Qianmo has through surrogacy will not have legal status in China because surrogacy is illegal.
Her current plan is for her and her surrogate to join the thousands of Chinese women giving birth in the United States each year, where surrogacy is legal. An extra perk - her child would have American citizenship. But now the U.S. isn't looking like a safe bet anymore.
LEE: (Through interpreter) If the Trump administration rescinds birthright citizenship and my child doesn't have a medical record in China, then I will have spent that money for nothing.
FENG: Then, Lee Qianmo says, she'll be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Emily Feng, NPR News, Shanghai.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHANGHAI RESTORATION PROJECT'S "RACE COURSE")
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