"Would you prefer a boy or a girl?" was my standard question for an assortment of biology education doctoral students assembled for an evening meal.
This was at Beijing Normal University, their national university for teacher training.
Of course the students could not get married until they were 24 or 25, but most have their ideal future planned out. But their answers were unexpected.
"I have a boyfriend and we will get married, but we have too much to do in life to be burdened with a child," said one.
"I’m not getting married," replied another. "Many good friends, but no marriage. I want to travel and research in my area."
This was not expected. And as I turned to my host, their major professor, his jaw had dropped too.
We probed further. They were serious in their departure from the standard continue-the-family-lineage custom. Chinese parents are notorious for wanting that grandchild at the first possible moment (after finishing education, of course). But here was a portion of their next generation who are ready to break that link.
China's one-child policy has been in effect since 1979, after a two-child policy started in 1970. After 1949, everyone was equal, which is to say, like in present-day Cuba, equally-poor. With nearly five times the population of the U.S. but with less farmland, "too many people" defines China. China's scholars have always asked "why didn’t Mao move to a 2-child and then one-child policy sooner, as his advisors recommended?" Without the one-child policy, China’s population today would be over 300 million more, an increase equal to adding the total population of the United States! That would have guaranteed starvation. Unmanageable pollution. Misery and instability. There would be no developed China today.
But the one child that was allowed was precious to Han Chinese families who value their family lineage extending from ancient times into the far future. So why are some students considering breaking this lineage?
I am calling this the "Singapore Effect." The island nation of Singapore has been the most advanced and progressive city-state in the world for the last 20 years. They ditched currency for electronic cards and cell phones that acted as debiting devices over 15 years ago. Their cell phone technology is years ahead of the United States. And the percentage of citizens who have bachelors and masters degrees leaves all other countries far behind. And that is the phenomenon that we are seeing among some highly-educated Chinese students today. When you rise to a high level of scholarship, any desire for children takes second place to your academic excitement and interests.
We have long known that people in poverty countries often had many children because so many died young. With higher education for women, along with better health care to ensure child survival, the number of children per family plummets to lower levels. But this declining birth rate continues with even higher education, as found in Singapore.
To produce just enough children to replace those who die is called zero population growth (ZPG). For several decades, Singapore has been way below ZPG; they are not producing a replacement generation. As a result, Singapore television broadcasts big tax rebates as an incentive to have a baby. And they pile on more tax breaks and ads asking "Doesn’t your child deserve a brother or sister to play with?"
China has not yet reached ZPG. While their school-age population is shrinking, their increase in lifespan still keeps China above ZPG.
The countryside, where rural families often had many children anyway, is rapidly migrating to cities. Add this "Singapore Effect" where some of the growing number of new college graduates are electing not to have children or even marry, and reaching ZPG is imminent.
The result is the increased usage of a new Chinese term – "kong chao" – the empty nest.