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China once had a one-child policy — now it wants couples to have more children

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a visit to China, we glimpsed one of the pressures on Chinese families - the pressure to add to the family, which is not easy. We attended a marriage market. It's inside People's Park, a wooded expanse of the giant city of Shanghai.

This is a scene.

AOWEN CAO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: There's hundreds of people here.

China's birth rate is way down. Its population has begun to decline, and marriage rates are way down, too, so our producer Aowen Cao and I attended the market that takes place on Sunday afternoon.

This is almost like a tunnel. It's a covered area of this garden path, this park path, and it's lined with people, and they have set papers down on the ground, each describing themselves or their kid that they're offering for marriage.

CAO: Yes.

INSKEEP: Usually, parents advertise their children by leaving a laminated description on the pavement.

CAO: It's almost like a personal resume.

INSKEEP: We read some.

It's got somebody's height and weight, 173 centimeters and 68 kilograms.

CAO: Yes, and graduated from a prestige university, engineer at a car company. They also describe his personality. He's a responsible person who doesn't smoke, doesn't drink alcohol, and he's looking for a woman who was born between 1993 to 1998 who has a kind heart and someone who is dynamic and has a beautiful smile.

INSKEEP: Our producer explained that a marriage market is far from the only way you might find a mate in China.

CAO: Young people tend to use dating apps these days.

INSKEEP: But marriage markets have become an outlet for some.

CAO: Especially for parents who are desperate to find partners for their children.

INSKEEP: Such as a woman who approached Aowen as we walked through the park.

CAO: She wanted to find me someone (laughter).

INSKEEP: Oh, she wants to - really?

CAO: She asked me if I have a boyfriend or so.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK.

CAO: Yeah.

INSKEEP: For more than 35 years, China enforced a policy of one child per family in most cases. Though the policy was abandoned a decade ago, it shaped the lives of those who are now adults. In that smaller generation, finding a mate is tricky. Some of their parents wanted to talk with us, but a park security guard intervened.

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY GUARD: (Speaking non-English language)

INSKEEP: He claimed there were privacy concerns, though this event is public and other journalists have covered it. As we walked away, a man followed us because he still wanted to talk.

JIANG YUQI: (Speaking non-English language)

CAO: Oh, he asked me if I'm looking for someone.

JIANG: Here to find a boyfriend? Where you from?

CAO: Not from Shanghai.

JIANG: Oh. You're original...

CAO: Yeah. Is that a problem?

JIANG: I just ask. I've been overseas long time.

INSKEEP: Jiang Yuqi had been working overseas and now is back.

Is he interested in you? Are you interested in her?

JIANG: Yeah, I want to make us just friends.

INSKEEP: Oh, just friends.

JIANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Just friends - OK, good.

CAO: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK.

INSKEEP: How old are you?

JIANG: I'm 29.

INSKEEP: Twenty-nine?

JIANG: I'm in a hurry to marry.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK, in a hurry to marry.

JIANG: Yeah.

INSKEEP: As we walked, he said he'd like a woman a bit younger than he is.

So 21 to 28?

JIANG: Yeah, yeah. Either foreigner or Chinese - no problem.

INSKEEP: Could be foreigner or Chinese...

JIANG: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...International background...

JIANG: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Great if they speak some English...

JIANG: Yeah, yeah.

INSKEEP: ... And similar ambitions to you.

JIANG: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

CAO: I'm curious why you're in a hurry to get married.

JIANG: Because I'm working and in lifetime, I'm very boring. That's the reason I want to find a wife (ph).

INSKEEP: Life is boring?

JIANG: Yeah, yeah. Here, life is very boring.

INSKEEP: Also, he's an only child, so he faces pressure to extend the family. China's government would like him to succeed. Birth rates and marriage rates remain far lower than authorities want, and that is no surprise to a Chinese economist we met. She says women are deciding how best to use their limited time.

QIAN LIU: So when you only have 24 hours, who do you want to be? Do you want to go out and work and be brilliant superwoman out there, or do you stay at home and do housework?

INSKEEP: Qian Lu told us that Chinese women get stuck with more housework than men do.

LIU: In economics, there is a term called motherhood penalty. When we look at studies such as in Denmark and U.S, on average, when a woman has a baby, she loses 20% of her income compared to a woman who doesn't.

INSKEEP: Across her lifetime.

LIU: Across her lifetime. Rational person would think twice before making a decision and say, let's go ahead and have 10 babies.

INSKEEP: Governments can offer people money to marry and have kids, but women specifically need something more direct.

LIU: I would also argue, very important to get the men to do some dishes (laughter), share some of the household responsibilities. Otherwise, I'm worried that this may just be modern Chinese women's silent strikes.

INSKEEP: Silent strikes.

LIU: Silent strike - if it's that much work to have babies, then the easiest way is to be independent. I'm not going to get married. I'm not going to have babies.

INSKEEP: Is there any movement among men to change that - somebody out there saying, guys, we need to do a little better here?

LIU: Well, actually, Chinese presidency calls for that, but I'm not seeing enough of that. But you also see grassroots sort of changes. For instance, men have been changing their behaviors. They're like, OK, how do we make women happy? And they start to buy more cosmetics. Like, they learn to use good brand to wash their faces. They start to go to gyms more...

INSKEEP: OK.

LIU: ...Because they know that would impress women.

INSKEEP: These social shifts can matter a lot if they eventually affect China's birth rates. This is no longer the world's most populous nation. India passed it. It's hard to predict what that means for China's economy, but a smaller and older population can mean too few workers supporting too many seniors, which means there can be global consequences for the very personal decisions that Chinese citizens make when they put themselves on the market. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.