Faced with falling birth-rates and reluctance by cash-strapped and time-poor couples to have more children, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ordered family planning officials to "intervene" to prevent abortions among teenagers and adolescents.
Family planning associations across the country are ordered to "begin a targeted campaign relating to abortion, in order to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions among young people," according to a Jan. 29 document posted to the Family Planning Association website.
Family planning officials must also begin an online propaganda campaign focused on "respecting the social value of childbirth, advocating age-appropriate marriage and childbearing, as well as optimal child-bearing and raising."
Eugenics has been an official part of CCP policy since the implementation of the Maternal and Infant Health Care Law in 1994.
The law requires doctors to recommend postponement of marriage if either couple has a contagious disease or an active mental disorder, while couple where one party has a serious hereditary disease may only marry if they agree to use long-term contraception or submit to sterilization.
If prenatal tests reveal that a fetus has a serious hereditary disease or serious deformity, women are expected to have an abortion, the law says.
Now, the government wants to use fresh social media content and slogans to "strengthen guidance of young people's views on marriage, love and family, and reshape parenting culture to embrace multi-child families," the family planning directive said.
"The new marriage and childbirth culture must be incorporated into village regulations, and content that is inconsistent with this must be revised," it said.
Such content should "promote the new fertility policy, the new concept of marriage and childbirth ... to create a fertility-friendly environment," it said.
A Chinese journalist who gave only the pseudonym Zhong Tao said the measures appear to be aimed at ensuring that more babies are born, even it they are born to younger, unmarried people.
"Unmarried pregnancy and even teenage pregnancy will become the norm, with all of the legal, social and moral issues that entails," Zhong told RFA. "This will lead to a rise in single-parent families."
The directive comes after official figures showed a sharp fall in the number of new marriage registrations from 13.47 million couples in 2013 to just 8.143 million couples in 2020.
"Encouraging single-parent families and early childbirth may yet become the focus of future family planning policy," Zhong said. "Especially for young people ... who haven't decided what they want from life yet, they might be willing to try having children without considering the burden they bring."
Lu Jun, the co-founder of the health non-profit Yirenping Center, said the claim that these "interventions" to prevent abortion is to protect young women's health is a smokescreen.
"Basically what this means is that women are still going to be treated as reproductive machines," Lu told RFA. "It shows us that the changes in family planning policy we have seen during the last 10 years have little to do with the reproductive health of the nation, and everything to do with serving government population goals."
"When they wanted to control the population, they pushed abortion and imposed forced abortions," he said. "Now they want to boost the so-called national fertility rate, they want to stop people having abortions."
High cost of child rearing
Lu said he fully expects local family planning officials, who have a track record of violence, forced abortion and other abuses against couples not complying with CCP guidelines, will also use coercive measures to force women to have children they don't want.
"There will definitely be a lot of arbitrary implementation in governments at all levels, and across the country, including abuses of power," he said. "There will be targets and quotas set for abortions prevented."
The CCP unveiled new plans in May 2021 to boost flagging birth rates and reverse population aging, raising the official limit on the number of children per couple from two to three.
But the people who do most of the mental, physical and emotional work of child-bearing and childcare -- Chinese women -- may not step up to solve the government's population problems as readily as CCP leader Xi Jinping is hoping.
Raising kids in China is a costly business, with parents stretched to find money for even one child's education. While state-run schools don't charge tuition until the 10th year of compulsory education, they increasingly demand nominal payments of various kinds, as well as payments for food and extracurricular activities.
Xi has said that "education and guidance should be provided to promote marriage and family values among marriage-age young people," with the Politburo promising tax and housing incentives in the pipeline for couples wanting to have children.
Other promised support measures include improvements to prenatal and postnatal care, a universal childcare service, and reduced education costs for families.
China's fertility rate stood at around 1.3 children per woman in 2020, compared with the 2.1 children per woman needed for the population to replace itself.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.