China Forgets Some Women Who Hold Up the Sky
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Three generations of women in my family attended Shanghai No. 3 Girls’ High School, which is next door to where I used to live. It produced the most famous political wives in early 20th century China: the famous Song sisters, Ailing, Qingling and Meiling, who were married respectively to the country’s richest banker, founder of the Chinese republic and its most powerful general. My grandmother was an alumna. She was an elegant taitai — a privileged matron — with five children.
By the time I attended, the school had embraced a very different ethos. Women did not have to be extensions of their husbands. The talk was of independence and personal achievement. We ran, swam, and beat the boys in district math contests. We were expected to become scientists, technocrats, or writers (if you didn’t happen to be good at numbers). Or bankers, politicians and generals.
Bright, smart girls were told to postpone marriage and child-rearing. If we started a family early, we were told it might endanger our careers. That, combined with China’s strict one-child policy, led to many of us being unmarried and childless, even as we moved across the world to pursue the most exciting jobs.
Of course, we’d be pestered by our parents, especially during the Lunar New Year. And if we were applying for work visas in Hong Kong, we’d have to check the “spinster” box in the application form. But we could laugh off that bureaucratic holdover from British colonial days and also deflect the family pressure to marry. Society, at large, tolerated spinsters like us. We paid our taxes. We spent a lot of money. We contributed to the gross domestic product. We made the economy work. We held up our part of the sky.
But lately, being childless has become the new sin to be atoned for. As China starts its single-minded pursuit of the new three-child policy, independent Chinese women are being marginalized and pushed aside — not just in terms of political polemic but in practical, economic terms. We need to do extra just to retain middle class privileges.
To its credit, the Chinese government has decided that one main reason people aren’t having kids is that home prices are too high. In recent months, big cities have launched home buying policies to cool the red hot real estate market and sell flats to those within the right demographics.
My hometown Shanghai has adopted a point system: Potential buyers need to have enough points to enter a raffle for apartments in new property developments. You could earn up to 60 points if your marital, residency and existing home ownership status fit the government’s target demographic. You can also collect more points if you’ve been paying into the city’s social security system since 2003.
If I was looking to buy, I’d already be 10 points behind a married couple of comparable age with kids. To be eligible at some of the developments, I would need to have paid 8.3 more years into social security to be at par. In fact, I am on the same footing as those who do not have a city hukou, or residency permit. I’d have to work extra hard to become a deserving Shanghai resident.
Don’t get me wrong. Parenthood is not easy. It has its own insane juggling act between career and childcare. But if a woman doesn’t or can’t reproduce, does she then have to be more economically productive to deserve an equal spot in society? That seems to be the emerging mindset in the mainland.
In the U.S., tens of millions of households last month received upsized child credit checks, worth as much as $3,600 per kid. Most people don’t mind paying more taxes to subsidize larger economic goals. But don’t make us less eligible than others for fundamental rights like owning property.
I have many single women friends who work long hours opening the China market for foreign banks, flying into the middle of nowhere to investigate distressed companies, or chasing non-stop after breaking news. By the time they start to think about their personal life, time and demographics are against them. Sometimes being alone isn’t their choice; it’s their circumstances. They’ve been busy holding up their part of the GDP.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron's, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.
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