Three – Mail on Sunday

At first I didn’t pay any attention. It was scarcely more than the rustle of leaves disturbed by the wind as we passed, a murmur of voices that rose briefly behind us and died away. Then I realized what they were saying. ‘Three…there are three of them… three children….’

When I moved to Beijing six years ago with one five year old, one toddler, and one babe-in-arms, I soon became aware that the very existence of my son and two daughters touched a raw nerve of longing among many Chinese with whom we came into contact.

Wherever I go with my son and daughters, the question is always the same: ‘Are they all yours?’ When I say yes, the response is always the same: a disbelieving laugh, and the words, ‘You’re lucky.’

Sometimes people ask where we are from and then, after a moment’s thought, they ask, ‘Don’t they restrict births in your country?’ as though that’s what governments naturally do.

I’d lived in China before I came back to live here with children. I knew that China has strict birth control laws designed to curb population growth in this country of 1.3 billion mouths to feed. In theory rural residents may have two children, as long as they are born several years apart. The strictest rules are reserved for the urban population, who are allowed one, although some cities are now allowing parents who are themselves only children to have two. Despite government attempts to popularize contraception, abortion often remains the primary method of birth control.

It is true that many urban Chinese would not choose to have more than one child, even if they could, because of the cramped conditions in which they live. Bringing my own children to live here made me understand for the first time, however, that having the government take such an intensely personal decision for you inevitably leads to deep resentment, even if that resentment is rarely voiced.

When one woman I knew discovered she had become pregnant for the umpteenth time, a kind of secret gleefulness hovered around her, just as it does in the early stage of pregnancy of women in other countries before friends and families are told. It occurred to me then that the relentless magic of pregnancy doesn’t vanish just because in China it so often ends in abortion rather than birth. The woman loved children, but she already had a son and could not afford the fines for having a second child. Reluctantly, she had her inevitable umpteenth abortion.

Sometimes the resentment breaks through. In May, peasants in rural Guangxi Province burned local government offices and fought with riot police in fury over a local government campaign to reduce births. According to press reports, that campaign involved forced abortions and the imposition of fines of up to 70,000 yuan (nearly 5,000 pounds) for anyone who’d broken the rules since 1980, even if they had been previously fined. Rural officials will often seize property if fines are not paid – sometimes stripping houses bare.

In Shandong Province, the blind anti-abortion activist Chen Guangcheng was jailed last year after he filed a class action lawsuit of behalf of thousands of people who had been first fined for unauthorized pregnancies and then forced to have abortions.

In the cities, the standard fine for having an unauthorized child is about 40,000 yuan, (about 2,500 pounds) or an entire year’s wages for a blue-collar worker. Ordinary people look on in envy as the country’s new millionaires flout the birth control rules and pay the fines easily, or travel elsewhere to give birth. Worried by the potential for social unrest, the government recently warned the wealthy that they were supposed to toe the line too.

Whenever I’m in a taxi and the conversation about birth control begins, I make sure to ask about the driver’s own child. Once – and I remember this because it was so unusual – a driver told me proudly how he had scraped together tens of thousands of yuan in fines to the local authorities as punishment for having a second and then a third child.

‘It’s no good having just one child,’ he said unrepentantly, ‘they don’t have anyone to play with.’

I heard that echoed when I went shopping with my daughters recently. Seeing them playing together, the saleswoman lost interest in the fabric she was measuring out for me and instead spoke to me at length about how lonely Chinese children were. Why not arrange play dates, I asked.

‘That’s not possible,’ she shook her head, ‘parents don’t like their children to go to other family’s homes, they’re too worried about safety.’

She was expressing a non-specific anxiety, one that’s often heard in a society that’s changing rapidly, where there’s a perception that crime is growing, where people no longer know their neighbours, and where both parents usually work, sometimes with no alternative but to leave children unsupervised.

A recent book about the death of only children became a best seller. The fact that nearly every couple in the city has only one child has led to a collectively protective attitude to child rearing.

My husband James and I sometimes encounter other people’s frustrated parenting desires. In the winter months, we are frequently approached by Chinese women telling us that we haven’t dressed our children warmly enough, despite the fact that the children are observably cheerful and well-insulated against the cold. Once, in a crowded park, we retreated onto a boat into the middle of the pond to escape the criticisms of our parenting ability.

Play – that staple of the western world’s child development texts – is way down the list of most parents’ priorities in China. In a country where there is no welfare net, your one child is your insurance policy for the future. When China’s failing state industries were allowed to go bankrupt, the mesh of free healthcare and schooling, and pensions that were administered through the work place all dissolved. Urban parents may have seen their incomes grow during China’s economic boom, but their outgoings, on medical bills and schooling, have soared.

‘Can you suggest a good career for my daughter?’ one man asked me anxiously. He didn’t just want her to be happy – he didn’t have that luxury. He needed her to be able to support herself, and her parents too.

When I have the ‘three children’ conversation in a taxi, the driver often peers into the rear view mirror or cranes around to double check the gender mix. While boys are thought of here as the best guarantor of the family’s future, many people would love to have the chance – which we take for granted – to see whether a bigger family will produce both. ‘A boy and girls,’ the driver murmurs, and again, ‘how lucky.’