SHANGHAI – In China, as elsewhere, celebrity gossip and public policy tend not to intersect. The boundary dissolved late last month, however, when Xu Jinglei, a popular (and single) 41-year-old actress, explained in an interview that she had traveled to the United States in 2013 to freeze nine of her eggs. Although she could have had that procedure performed in China, she wouldn’t have been permitted, as long as she wasn’t married, to have those eggs implanted for a pregnancy.
Xu’s trip abroad has sparked a vigorous debate at home about whether China’s restrictions on in vitro fertilization — and the social values informing them — have failed to keep pace with the country’s economic advances.
China’s debate over IVF is partly a debate over single motherhood. China still reveres — and its government still promotes — traditional family structures. Women are expected to marry and bear a child to carry on a family line; those who wait past their mid-twenties are widely stigmatized as “leftover women.” And the only status that’s considered worse for women than not marrying and having children is having one without a spouse.
“An unmarried woman with a child can be a constant source for rumors and gossip,” wrote a columnist for one state-owned news portal in 2010. Pre-marital sex, though common in China, remains something that women generally don’t admit to, if only to protect their — and their families’ — reputation. Likewise, it’s an unspoken rule in many workplaces that single mothers aren’t welcome.
But China’s single mothers don’t just have to endure social and familial disapproval; they also face potential sanctions from the Chinese government. Regulations vary across China, but a child of unwed parents generally can’t be issued a birth certificate, and thus can’t receive a hukou — a local residence permit that entitles the bearer to a range of social services, including public education, health care, and even a passport — unless they pay the “social maintenance fee” levied against parents who violate China’s one-child policy. In 2013, the city of Wuhan considered going even further, by levying an outright fine on unwed parents (reportedly as much as four times the city’s average income).
It’s telling, however, that this latter proposal was scrapped after local outrage earned it national attention. China’s traditional social conservatism is increasingly clashing with the realities of its expanding economy. Over the last three-and-a-half decades, upward mobility has improved the economic status of nearly all Chinese, including women of all backgrounds.
For example, more than half of the millions of merchants on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace are women, and 14 of the world’s 28 self-made female billionaires are Chinese. Meanwhile, education, employment, and satisfying careers are providing incentives to delay marriage — and to freeze eggs for later use.
Xu Jinglei, in her now famous interview, cast her decision in terms that resonated with millions of unmarried and independent Chinese women. She explained that she happened to be in Los Angeles on an extended vacation with her boyfriend (where they saw a Lakers game and went to a gun range) when she realized she might regret not freezing her eggs.
She gave no indication as to when exactly she might use them, or how she might plan to have them fertilized (never mind the boyfriend in tow). Rather, she framed the decision as an expression of her personal freedom. “I’ve given you my feelings on the experience, as to whether or not you want to do it is your choice,” she said.
The young Chinese who turned to social media to celebrate Xu’s plan (and lament her inability to carry it out in China) felt compelled to push back against government interference in their private lives, even if they didn’t plan on ever becoming single mothers themselves. Of the many hundreds of thousands of expressions of support since Xu’s interview, none was so eloquent or widely read as a Monday post to the Sina Weibo social network by Han Han, a hugely popular blogger, novelist and race car driver.
Addressing concerns that single mother households are inferior to traditional families, he wrote: “A mainstream family is best, but choice must be given to the non-mainstream as well. … Don’t take away choice from those who are different than you. … Women are not men’s child rearing machinery or mobile wombs.”
For now, the cost of freezing eggs, much less using them, is still beyond the means of most Chinese women. But the existence of a black market for eggs — and IVF procedures — suggests that more Chinese (single or married) are interested than the government would prefer to admit. Meanwhile, the chorus of voices demanding that China’s economically empowered women be granted the right to make reproductive choices for themselves is growing louder. Sooner or later, the Chinese government will need to adjust to the times.
Based in Shanghai, Adam Minter covers politics, culture, business and junk. .