Fertility and population policy in two counties in China 1980-1991

N H Thomas, A Mu
Journal of Biosocial Science 2000, 32 (1): 125-40
A survey of women in two highly developed rural counties of China, Sichuan and Jiangsu Provinces, was carried out in late 1991, to gain information about demographic and economic change between 1980 and 1990. Three separate surveys were conducted: the first a questionnaire administered to married women aged 30-39, eliciting information about childbearing and contraception, as well as the social and economic background of the respondents; the second, focus group interviews emphasizing the motivation for childbearing. Official information about the selected villages, townships and counties was also collected. National level data in 1987 show that individual reproductive behaviour in China failed to conform to a universal, effectively implemented, population policy. They imply either a spatial range of policies, or great diversity in the demand for children, or perhaps a combination of both. Such diversity in reproductive behaviour is also found in the study area. The purpose of the analysis was to examine the diversity in reproductive behaviour and contraceptive practice, and to discover whether differentials are influenced by area, or else exist between individuals within areas. If the former, then the explanation may be found in differences in policy formulation and implementation between areas: and if the latter, to demand for children, or else differential application of policy restrictions. The main findings were that: (1) the explanation of the pattern of fertility and contraceptive use is to be found at the individual level (within locations) rather than in policy differences between administrative units; (2) the association between income and number of children is negative, as is that between income and the propensity for uniparous women to remain unsterilized. The theory that privilege may be exercised to gain concessions from birth planning cadres is therefore not supported; (3) ideal family size differentials are largely absent, showing that social (education) and economic (income, occupation) characteristics are not responsible for differences in reproductive motivations, and implying that the nature of the demand for children is very different from that in most rural areas of the Third World; (4) data on ideal family size by sex of the existing offspring indicate only a weak preference for sons. The low demand for children, and the weak son preference, may both be explained by the social acceptability of uxorilocal marriages, and of village endogamy, together with the prohibitive costs of children, and especially of sons. This partly results from the expense of education, but most mothers emphasize marriage costs. It is speculated that the circumstances responsible for the escalating costs of children in the two countries are likely to pertain in growing areas of the country, with the privatization of education and health services, the declining support of collective institutions, and the replacement of this function by kinship networks. These on-going changes imply that any policy of reproductive restriction for the purposes of population control is likely soon to meet with diminishing resistance; and it may later be rendered unnecessary in the eyes of government officials, as fulfilled reproductive intentions lead to a fertility level below replacement level.

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