Episode 10: What women in China want

Chinese women are having fewer babies. China's population is declining, and the government wants to turn it around—but will it work?

Nurses at a postnatal center in Hangzhou tend to babies while their mothers recuperate. Privately run centers like this one now offer new mothers the month of recovery—zuo yuezi— recommended in traditional Chinese medicine at a cost of tens of thousands of U.S. dollars. The cost of raising children in modern China is a key factor in the country’s declining population.
Photo by Justin Jin

There are more than 8 billion humans on Earth, according to the United Nations. And for decades, China has had more people than any other country. But now, China’s population is declining. As soon as this year, it could lose its place as the most populous nation in the world. National Geographic photographer Justin Jin shares what he observed in this pivotal moment for China; he captured scenes where many young women are choosing not to have children, and instead are spending their money on doggie daycare and on karaoke nights with friends and male escorts. As we head into Women’s History Month, we’ll explore why Chinese women are taking a different path, despite the government campaigns pushing them to get married and have children.

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JUSTIN JIN (PHOTOGRAPHER): I've traveled to China scores of times. I know every way of getting in. But this—I really was stuck.

AMY BRIGGS (HOST): In the summer of 2022, Justin Jin started a project that would become a National Geographic cover story. Justin is a photographer based in Brussels. Nat Geo wanted to send him to China. But last summer, China’s borders were mostly closed under its zero-COVID policy.

JIN: Because I'm from Hong Kong, I do have a Chinese passport, and that allows me to go into China without a visa, because at that time China was not issuing visas to foreigners.

BRIGGS: Plane tickets, however, were another story. Airlines had canceled thousands of flights. Justin says at one point, a travel agent offered to book him a one-way ticket for $13,000.

JIN: So finally I found a ticket to Beijing for $4,000, which by then sounded very reasonable. Two days before flying, I thought maybe I’ll just double check that everything is OK. I called the airline. I say, So my flight to Beijing, it's—everything's going fine, right? And they say, Well, you are going to be landing in Xi’an, a city, like, a thousand kilometers away in the heart of China, where the terra-cotta army is.

BRIGGS: If your metric system is as rusty as mine, that’s more than 600 miles away. But Justin rolled with it. When he made it to China, he still wasn’t in the clear. He had to avoid coronavirus outbreaks, otherwise he’d be stuck in mandatory quarantine.

JIN: So, you know, I had to make plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D, plan E. You know, I don't know how many plans I've canceled. So I was traveling, doing the story like—as if I was covering a war or a natural disaster.

BRIGGS: But he wasn’t covering a war or a natural disaster or even COVID. Nat Geo sent Justin there for a story on China’s changing population. At the beginning of 2023, China officially had more people than any other country. But this year, for the first time since the 1960s, the government announced that the population shrank. And according to population models, this is just the beginning.

JIN: This is a change that will impact not only the country, but the whole planet. China's population could decline by more than half in the next 70, 80 years. This is a moment when a country that was very worried about its overpopulation just a few decades ago are now threatened by a population decline.

BRIGGS: I’m Amy Briggs, executive editor of National Geographic History magazine. And this is Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world. There are 8 billion people on the planet—more than ever before. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re focusing on women in two countries headed for big change.

This week: why Chinese women are choosing to get married less and having fewer babies. Justin explains how a huge geopolitical shift can be explained in part by doggy daycare, the rise of male escorts, and luxury care centers for new moms. And we’ll go inside the Chinese propaganda pressuring young women to have babies and learn why more women are saying no.

That’s coming up. But first, fuel your curiosity with a free one-month trial subscription to Nat Geo Digital. You’ll have unlimited access on any device, anywhere, ad-free with our app that lets you download stories to read offline. Explore every page ever published with a century of digital archives at your fingertips. Check it all out for free at natgeo.com/exploremore.

If this was Sesame Street, today’s episode would be brought to you by the number 8 billion. Just to put it in perspective, a hundred years ago, the human population was around two billion. We’ve quadrupled since then, and as a species we’re adding another billion people about every 12 years.

National Geographic is focusing our April issue on two countries going through a seismic shift. First up: China. In the 1980s, China became the first country to have a billion people all on its own. Now, according to population models, it’s about to lose the title of the most populous country. Justin Jin set out to learn why Chinese women are choosing to have fewer kids or none at all.

BRIGGS: Do you think being the most populous country in the world is an important part of Chinese identity?

JIN: Yes. For millennia, China is the center of the world. That's why the name “China” means the middle kingdom, right? And the middle kingdom is the biggest kingdom.

BRIGGS: How will it affect national identity to have this massive shift where it may not be the biggest anymore?

JIN: It's so hard to say because, I mean, there must be so many different responses, and it is a new situation. So I think a lot of people are processing this idea that China is no longer the biggest country. And if coupled with an economic decline, then that's also something that they will find it hard to digest.

BRIGGS: So we photographed—you photographed—these moments in modern China, you know, for the story. But before we talk about those, I think we need a little bit more background. Why is China's population shrinking?

JIN: Well the first reason why China's population is shrinking is the one-child policy, which was very strict and imposed on the entire population since the seventies, officially becoming law in 1980. And it's not just a number thing where, you know, if you allow people to have one child, they have one child. If you allow—if you loosen the law, they will have more children. It's not really like that because you have a whole generation of people growing up a single child, and so when it comes to their turn to procreate, they think it's just a normal thing to not have siblings.

BRIGGS: Yeah so the law—I mean, that law's been repealed. And you would think, Oh birth rates would go right back up. But it sounds like that's not the case.

JIN: No. There's also another change happening, and that's the gigantic shift from agrarian culture to urban living—-urbanization of the country. So when I started out as a correspondent for Reuters in the nineties, we used to describe China as a country with 80 percent farmers, and now less than half of the population are farmers. And it is projected that within, you know, two decades, only 20 percent of the population will be agrarian. So that's like, you know, a complete reversal. And of course, life is becoming very expensive. It's a very competitive society, so people tend to invest a lot in their children—you know, kids doing violin class, ballet, some even learning Latin. You know, imagine the cost of putting kids through this roster of extracurricular training. The cost of raising a child is on par with the states. Yet the median income in China is still much lower. So for many, many families, it just makes much more sense to have one child nowadays, if at all.

BRIGGS: So you have this story of, you know, population change. And that seems sort of—to my mind, it seems abstract. How did you decide to approach it?

JIN: So actually, the hardest thing about photographing this story is indeed the abstractness of it all. Population change on this scale is not something that you can really see. It's not like suddenly there are no people on the street. No, I mean, China is like a big mothership whose population is shifting by the millimeter per year. You know, it's almost an imperceivable change. So when you talk about population decline, how—the first thing that goes through my mind, how how could I photograph a change that is actually visually static?

BRIGGS: Justin’s photos are definitely not static. He found vibrant little slices of life that help explain this gigantic change. There’s this one photo that is really surprising. Justin took it at a specialized postnatal center. There’s a team of nurses in gleaming white outfits tending to six newborn babies. It looks like the babies are in excellent hands.

JIN: So on first impression, you’d think that there's a baby boom in China. But actually, these are highly paid postnatal centers used by high achieving mothers who wants to get back to work quickly. They pay something like between 10,000 U.S. dollars to 30,000 for that first month for this super treatment where their child is nursed around the clock by a team of nurses and doctors. And the mothers get you know, herbal medicine, massage, everything taken care of just so that—for most of them—they can go back to their high pressure job within a month in top form.

BRIGGS: Wow. So it isn't just about personal ambition for these women. It's also about the pressure to earn money to be able to support their children in the ways that you talked about before. The lessons, the schools. And it all starts from day one. Hour one, it sounds like.

JIN: Yes. Imagine if your first month already costs you 10, 15, $20,000. How much is the rest going to cost?

BRIGGS: So in that and—let's talk about another picture from the story, So we see there's an older man and woman, and it's in Shanghai and they're embracing I think their great-granddaughter, who's five years old, and she looks like she's trying to squirm away from her parents a little bit. Maybe she's not comfortable. What was going on in that picture?

Justin Jin: I looked for a family that reflected the recent birth control history of China, and I found this one. The elderly couple themselves in the fifties gave birth to three children when it was like the normal thing to do. Their children, when they reached childbearing age around the seventies and eighties, they were under the one child policy. So each of these three children had one child. One generation further the children who are now in their twenties and thirties—of the three of them, only one decided to have a child. The other two—one didn't want to have any children and the other, you know, prefers a dog. And that encapsulates what's going on in Shanghai now. So there's only one of these children decided to have a child, and it’s this five year old girl. So for the elderly couple having given birth to three children, you would have thought that it would like, you know, continue to widen in a pyramid. But actually it tapered off back to one person, and now this girl is their only descendant.

BRIGGS: Justin mentioned that in one of the families he photographed, a young person decided they’d rather have a dog than a kid. Apparently in China, that’s a popular idea. Another one of Justin’s photos shows two people at an indoor swimming pool. They’re throwing balls to their two dogs, who are in the water, on a pink, flamingo-shaped floatie. So I asked him, is this couple making the same choice: dogs over kids?

JIN: Yes, they and many people I met in Shanghai, especially Shanghai. The more developed a city is, the more reluctant people are in having children. So they are not atypical of the population in Shanghai—young people who are part of the DINK tribe, right? The “double income, no kids” tribe. But they need someone to take care of, so dogs and cats have become really in vogue.

BRIGGS: When do people in China tend to make these decisions? Are they—is it, you know, in their early twenties or do they—or is it later?

JIN: Well another change that's going on is that young people are giving their own parents less and less say in what they do with their lives. So you know, maybe 10, 20 years ago, a lot of parents can pile pressure on their children to get married and make babies, but nowadays less and less young people listen to them. And you can see that also in that picture about a group of young women in a karaoke bar entertained by a male escort that they hired for the night.

BRIGGS: OK. Tell me about the karaoke bar and the women and the escort. I am fascinated by that.

JIN: So this group of women, they hired the male escort to energize their night out—keep them company, sing with them, pour them beer and wine—in a way, just like how many men in China would do on their night out. It's no secret that a lot of men, you know, go to karaoke bars and hire female escorts to entertain them. And this picture shows that in China, there's no longer shame or embarrassment for women to also hire escorts. It feels like the most normal thing in this bar. Young people are leading their own lives and in a much lesser way adhering to traditional family values.

BRIGGS: The Chinese government tried to control population with the one-child policy. How are they reacting to the news that the population is shrinking? Are they actively encouraging people to have more children?

JIN: So facing declining population, the Chinese government relaxed the one-child policy to allow families to have two children in 2016. So in 2021, they further loosened the rule to three children per family. And everywhere you hear, the government is giving incentives for people to have children in the form of tax breaks, housing allowance, longer maternity leave, and so on. But these measures might be too late.

BRIGGS: It turns out, that’s actually not all the government is doing. Talking to Justin made me want to know more about how Chinese women make the decision to have kids. That led me to Leta Hong Fincher, a sociologist at Columbia University who has studied one particular type of Chinese propaganda.

LETA HONG FINCHER (SOCIOLOGIST): The government sees its goal as really targeting women, trying to persuade or coerce them or shame them into feeling like they really need to hurry up and get married or they'll be too old and no man will ever want them.

BRIGGS: In the early 2010s, Leta was doing research in China. She started to hear about this propaganda campaign targeting young women. That’s where she got the title of her first book. It’s called Leftover Women.

HONG FINCHER: I was a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Tsinghua University in Beijing at the time. I was interviewing a lot of young women as well as young men, and I realized that a lot of these young women felt pressured to avoid becoming a so-called leftover woman, which was defined by the Chinese government as a single, educated woman, 27 years old or older. And—

BRIGGS: Twenty-seven?

HONG FINCHER: Well that's actually the official designation of the age for a so-called leftover woman. But in fact, when I was looking at the propaganda surrounding the term, it was even used to describe women who were in their mid-twenties or sometimes even younger.

BRIGGS: Oh my God. Twenty-seven’s really young.

HONG FINCHER: Well, it is very young. So it's—when I started looking into the origins of this term and I realized that this was actually a very deliberate propaganda campaign coming from the Chinese government that was shaming single, educated, Han Chinese women primarily. And the message was extraordinarily sexist and really shocking levels of misogyny.

BRIGGS: I mean, is this campaign working, or are more women okay with still pursuing their own career and agenda, even if it means, you know, being labeled a leftover woman?

HONG FINCHER: The campaign came out in 2007, and for the first few years around then it was really working. Chinese society has changed a lot, and if you look at the marriage rates, they actually peaked around 2013 and they've been falling every consecutive year since. And birthrates are also falling. Obviously, you can never predict the future entirely, but I think that this is a trend that is going to continue.

BRIGGS: So the the subtitle of that book is “the resurgence of gender inequality in China.” So I'm wondering if there was a time in China when there was some—there was gender equality. Can you run me through the history of that? What has gender equality looked like in the past in China?

HONG FINCHER: Communist China in the early stages made gender equality this rallying cry. I mean, there was this long revolution, and the Communists at the time, in the 1920s and 1930s, had all sorts of platforms like, We're going to educate all women. There was a very high illiteracy rate. And we're going to put all women to work, and women can have these very influential positions inside the Communist Party, and so a lot of young women joined the Communists because they found that message of gender equality to be really appealing. So then after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, China in the early communist era achieved these amazingly high levels of female labor force participation. Women were supposed to be treated equally to men, and Mao Zedong's—one of his most famous sayings was, “Women hold up half the sky.”

BRIGGS: Leta says one of the biggest legacies of Mao’s rule was in education.

HONG FINCHER: Most women and girls used to be illiterate in China, certainly when the communists came to power in 1949, and then that was one of the achievements of the Communist Party was that they were able to educate women and girls. So today, women in China are more educated than ever before in Chinese history.

BRIGGS: But after Mao’s death in the 1970s, things began to change. The Chinese economy was stagnating, and China’s new leaders wanted to rev it up. They moved away from Mao’s policies and introduced free-market reforms. In the eighties and nineties, the economy soared. But mostly men were reaping the benefits, and women were locked out.

As Leta writes in her book, “A combination of factors—including skyrocketing home prices, a resurgence of traditional gender norms, legal setbacks to married women’s property rights, declining labor force participation among women, and the media campaign against ‘leftover’ women—has contributed to the fall in status and material well-being of Chinese women relative to men.”

HONG FINCHER: Marriage as an institution fundamentally does not protect women's rights. And so this is a big part of why you see more and more young women, especially those who have gone to college, saying that they don't want to get married. And because it's an authoritarian country where there is very, very little space for political dissent, if not no space, that this is one area where they can take control of their lives.

BRIGGS: So I know you're working on a new edition of Leftover Women for its 10th anniversary. What's it been like to revisit it? I mean, what still seems relevant a decade later?

HONG FINCHER: Yes. I have to say, you know, I didn't reread the book for quite a few years, and so ot was really eye opening to see. This book is incredibly relevant! I mean, the data, all of the statistics showed that marriage rates were still pretty high, but I was interviewing quite a few women who said, Oh, marriage in China is a living hell. I'm never going to get married, I'm never going to have a baby. And I thought that was incredibly radical. And this is a trend that has shown up. It's very clear in the statistics now that women, especially educated women, are increasingly saying no to marriage and babies.

Another big surprise for me was I thought, OK, it's been so many years. Surely it's, like, changed the propaganda. But what surprised me was, practically every single example still exists. You can still find it through the state media, like sometimes word for word, but it is still just as sexist as it was then. Of course the difference is, young women in particular, are just increasingly ignoring those messages.

BRIGGS: Leta Hong Fincher is the author of Leftover Women, as well as Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China. For a deeper dive into the world’s population reaching 8 billion, check out the April issue of National Geographic.

You can see Justin Jin's photographs from China, but that’s just the beginning. Also you can follow Justin on Instagram @Justin.Jin.

If you like what you hear and you want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard. Go to natgeo.com/exploremore to subscribe.


This week’s Overheard episode is produced by senior producer Jacob Pinter.

Brian Gutierrez is our other senior producer.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen.

Our manager of audio is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Michael Tribble is the vice president of integrated storytelling.

Nathan Lump is National Geographic’s editor in chief.

And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See you next time.


Want more? 

See Justin Jin’s photos—and other scenes from a world with 8 billion people—in the April issue of National Geographic.

Earth’s growing population belies vastly different types of demographic change taking shape around the globe. Here’s why demographers don’t agree on what will happen next.

Also explore: 

Follow Justin on Instagram @Justin.Jin.

Learn about Chinese propaganda targeting women—and how more women are pushing back—in Leta Hong Fincher’s books Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China and Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China.