For many women living in China, state and familial pressures mean that procreation is only possible within heterosexual marriage, and before the ripe old age of 27. For a single Chinese woman who has other ideas about bearing children there are very few options. There are even less options if your choice is to use assisted reproductive technologies, such as freezing your eggs. Although this technology is highly demanded by Chinese single women, especially those who are labelled as “leftover” (unmarried women older than 27), the only way to have access to this new reproductive technology would be through the black market or by travelling abroad.
China has long prohibited offering assisted reproductive technologies to single women. This rarely discussed but commonly known policy has now become a hot topic worldwide after a famous 41-year-old Chinese actress and film director, Xu Jinglei, announced that she had traveled to the U.S. in 2013 to freeze her eggs. At long last, the issues of “leftover” women’s reproductive rights are being discussed outside of academic circles.
The state’s response to the Xu Jinglei egg-crisis once again proves that it still uses policies and the media to push women into marriage by reinforcing that marriage is the prerequisite of childbearing. Women are regarded as breeding machines and guardians of family and social stability.
The publicity around Xu Jinglei’s egg retrieval story has caused the Chinese government to be anxious over what other “leftover” women in China might do in light of Xu’s experience. The government has used several state-run media outlets to publish a series of articles aimed at convincing “leftover” women that they should get married and have children rather than store their eggs.
On the one hand, the state-run media emphasizes that the procedures of egg retrieval and storage are far more complicated than what people think they are, and that the success rate is low (less than 30%).One more reason, they assert, is that women should give birth at an early age. For example, Xinhuanet, a prominent news website ran by the predominant Chinese official press agency Xinhua, reported on its website that “the national health and family planning commission suggests that women should get pregnant in their prime child-bearing years, between 24 and 29. Pregnancy at over 35 can be dangerous to both mother and fetus.”
On the other hand, the state-run media explicitly reaffirmed that it is not possible for a single woman to have access to assisted reproductive technologies in China. China Central Television reported that single women cannot use their frozen eggs to get pregnant because this is at odds with the national population and family planning laws and regulations.
What could possibly motivate the state-run media to intimidate women in this way? One answer is that single women having complete control over their reproduction threatens the “harmonious society” project and population control system of the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP). If the nation’s “breeding machines” delay their marriages or give birth out of wedlock, the government loses control over its most basic measures for population control. And along the way the long established social control system that considers the traditional nuclear family as the “basic cell” of the societal structure will be threatened. What’s more, the failure of “surplus” men to get married becomes an even bigger concern for a government seeking to maintain the social order. This is because the state assumes that single men without a wife or family to discipline them would be more likely to commit crime or destroy social stability.
The “harmonious society” project was launched by Hu Jintao, the former president of the People’s Republic of China, to solve social conflicts and ensure social stability. The All China Women’s Federation (the ACWF), which is the world’s largest women’s organization but also the women’s arm of the CCP, has carried out a campaign to build “harmonious families” by advocating the patriarchal cultural understanding of family/marriage and women’s roles as wives and mothers. Rather than challenging patriarchal thoughts that contribute to the phenomenon of “leftover” women, the ACWF emphasizes the importance of monogamous families and reinforces the established gender ideology in the media. What’s more, the ACWF plays an important role in the media campaign of “rescuing” “leftover” women by blaming them as picky, selfish and money-oriented women, and putting forward suggestions on how they can become attractive to men on their website.
At the same time, the desires of single women to give birth are used by the state as tools to push young women into heterosexual marriage at an early age through the prohibition of out-of-wedlock childbearing and exaggerating the dangers of giving birth after their twenties.
I understand the importance of maintaining social stability and dealing with the consequences caused by the One-Child Policy in China. Population control is critical. But China, as a powerful nation, should not impose these responsibilities onto women’s shoulders and take it for granted that every woman should sacrifice their life plans for a certain ideal of the family and the state.
Qian Liu is a PhD student in the Faculty of Law, University of Victoria