Caixin
Nov 05, 2018 05:38 AM
SOCIETY & CULTURE

‘Singles Tax’ Furor Highlights Sensitivity Over Pressure to Have More Children

Childless people are feeling discriminated against by policies that are preferential to parents. Photo: VCG
Childless people are feeling discriminated against by policies that are preferential to parents. Photo: VCG

In August, the made-up Chinese term for “singles tax” was banned from social media platform Weibo.

The tax? It doesn’t exist. Rather, the phrase “singles tax” (“danshen shui” in Mandarin), concocted by netizens, was erroneously applied to the tax deductions China is planning to grant to parents to ease their child care costs as of 2019, as the National People’s Congress announced the same month.

The reaction, however, was very real. Single people across China decried the deductions online, claiming they would be penalized for remaining unmarried. “It’s already hard enough for me to find a boyfriend/girlfriend, and now I also have to pay taxes for being single?!” wrote one netizen, as reported by Whatsonweibo.com.

“Why is (the government) having me raise other peoples’ children?” wrote another.

A series of memes spread on the Chinese internet, including one of a humorous valentine, the text beneath it reading: “Would you save on taxes with me?”

Weibo responded to the controversy by blocking the term.

The government initiative isn’t a “tax” but a proposed list of itemized deductions that parents can apply for to cover costs associated with education for their children, housing loans, and housing rent, according to state broadcaster CGTN. It was issued after China raised its tax baseline from 3,500 yuan ($504) to 5,000 yuan per month in October, the broadcaster said.

But both the proposed tax break to families with children and the fierce reaction to it are emblematic of increasingly divided attitudes toward family-making in China today.

Despite the repeal of China’s one-child policy in late 2015, the birth rate is predicted to fall for the third year straight in 2019, the China Population Association announced last week, according to the official China Daily newspaper on Wednesday.

In order to boost its labor force in the face of an aging population, China is ramping up state-sponsored programs to encourage settling down at the same time that the number of singles in metropolitan areas is increasing. As a result, single people are now feeling more government pressure than ever to get married, just as those with one child feel pressure to have a second. But many don’t want to have another child — and some don’t want children at all.

Choosing to stay single

Ye Liu, a lecturer in international development at King’s College London, interviews Chinese women aged in their 30s for her research. It’s a demographic that has become increasingly financially independent and highly educated in recent years.

“These women talk a lot about happiness, well-being, and making their own choices, rather than traditional norms,” Liu said. The first generation born under the one-child policy, “they take advantage of being a single child and having independence to explore options.” This is why, Liu said, many of them “are not entirely thrilled to have more children.”

Liu cites a variety of widespread concerns about having children, including child care and the rising costs associated with education. But there are also concerns about food safety and health, especially after this year’s vaccine scandal.

These concerns extend to young people in major Chinese cities regardless of gender or age. Hui Faye Xiao, an associate professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of Kansas who studies marriage in China, said, “In comparison to their parents’ generation, today’s youths are more open-minded toward different forms of sociality and are more accepting of alternative yet fulfilling lifestyles outside of heterosexual marriage.”

Remaining unmarried, however, comes with a social cost. “This changing attitude toward marriage and singledom has been best manifested in the recent social phenomenon of the so-called ‘leftover women,’ ” Xiao said, referring to the term used to describe the growing number of unmarried women aged 27 and older. “The derogatory label itself still shows the patriarchal biases against the group.”

Despite government efforts such as tax breaks for families with children, much of the pressure on these people to get married and have children comes from their parents. One of Liu’s interviewees, for example, is a single woman in her mid-30s whose parents are so desperate for her to marry that they’ve set her up on 35 blind dates. It takes a great deal of independence — and often, spunk — to stand up to that kind of pressure. These women “tend to be very feisty in terms of their personality, and they find alternative safety nets — such as having more education, investing in themselves,” Liu said.

A State Affair

Family pressure to have children has always existed, but it is only recently that the government has also piled on. State efforts to combat the declining birthrate kicked off with the repeal of the one-child policy, but in 2018 the government has moved from merely allowing second births to promoting them.

A People’s Daily article in August titled “Having a Baby Is a Family Matter and Also a State Affair” argued that “the government should take more targeted measures to solve the problem of low birth rates,” according to “What’s On Weibo.” In May, a new postal stamp design for 2019 portrayed a pig family with three piglets, and many interpreted it as a possible indicator of a future “three-child policy.” And in September, the government scrapped its own family-planning departments, signaling that a future without birth restrictions may be on the horizon.

More unusual strategies have occurred on the regional level. In 2017, the China Association of Social Workers, which is backed by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, launched a Marriage Consumption Subsidy Fund to offer support to newly married couples in Taiyuan, Shanxi province. The subsidies were granted to over 1,000 couples beginning in February to cover wedding ceremonies, home decor, honeymoons, household appliances and more, according to The Beijing News. A representative told The Beijing News in February the foundation plans to spread its initiative to more cities, pending approval from the China Association of Social Workers.

In August, Xinhua ran an opinion piece by two Chinese academics advocating for a tax on couples who do not have a second child. Xiao responded in an article for a WeChat subscription account, saying, “I can only say I doubt this punitive policy would exert much influence on younger generations’ life choices and decision-making, since it does not provide help to overcome any of the challenges faced by young people in today’s China.”

Liu, meanwhile, said the women she has spoken to have described a feeling of whiplash at the shifting government family policies they’ve seen in their lifetimes. The first generation born under the one-child policy, they’re now also the first people in a generation being asked to have second children. “Single girls were the only daughters, and they feel like they are trapped in an experiment,” Liu said.

Still, she points out, China’s family policies have shown enormous capacity for change. “In my parents’ generation, the wedding was very traditional — two comrades getting married. Now you see people wearing Western wedding dresses. It’s an interesting hybrid of traditional wedding practices and a more-modern, Western outlook.”

It may be too soon to tell, but the codes for marriage and family-making could very well be completely different in 30 years. “I do admire the people who constantly kind of reinvent the cultural codes for new lifestyles,” Liu said.

Contact reporter Noelle Mateer (lanluo@caixin.com)

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