The evolution of national policies
Since their introduction in the 1970s, the policies aiming to regulate marriage and childbearing in China were revised frequently. In the 1970s, later marriage and later childbearing rules were applied in the cities where couples were encouraged to delay marriage until age 25 for women and age 28 for men and not to have more than two children. Urban and rural couples alike had to conform to a longer birth-spacing period of at least 3–4 years (Attané, 2002).
The establishment of one-child policies, first discussed in 1978, was motivated by the goal of quickly reducing high birth rates, which were seen as impeding economic growth (Wang et al., 2013). In February 1980, a set of developmental goals had been formulated, including a goal of limiting a total population in China to 1.2 billion in 2000, accompanied by policies that restricted 95% of urban couples and 90% of rural couples to having only one child (Wang et al., 2013). This drastic fertility limitation was in part enforced by a host of coercive measures. However, popular resistance forced the government to relax its most stringent rules. From 1984 on, rural couples have been allowed a second child, subject to province-specific conditions (Attané, 2002; Gu et al., 2007; Scharping, 2013).
In the 1980s, each province enacted its own set of family-limitation regulations, leading to a great policy variation between provinces (Short & Zhai, 1998). Exceptions from the one-child-per-couple rule were defined within regions (provinces and prefectures) and applied either for specific population groups (rural residents, ethnic minorities, specific socio-economic groups or occupations) or for all couples in the region fulfilling certain criteria (e.g., both partners being the only children) (Attané, 2002; Gu et al., 2007; Scharping, 2013; Short & Zhai, 1998). Altogether, Gu et al. (2007) identified 22 circumstances where couples were exempted from one-child policy based on examination of 420 prefecture-level family planning policy guidelines in 1999. A new mechanism, “the family planning responsibility system” was established to hold all cadres accountable for successful policy implementation (Greenhalgh, 1986). Birth spacing requirements also spread across the country, with most provinces requiring a minimum spacing of 4 or 5 years between the first and the second birth. In addition, some provinces also set a minimum age for women who could have a second birth, while other provinces specified both birth timing and birth spacing requirements (Zhang & Liu, 2016). People’s reproductive behaviour—the timing of marriage and first birth, the possibility to have a second child, as well as the timing and spacing of the second birth—thus became subject to administrative regulation that combined national and local rules and policies.
Enforcement of the birth limitation program was tightened nation-wide since 1991 (Greenhalgh & Li, 1995; Zeng, 1996). Supported by an extensive bureaucracy devoted to surveillance and policy enforcement, the policy penetrated Chinese society from the highest level of the government down to urban neighbourhoods and rural villages (Cai, 2010; Greenhalgh, 2008; Gu et al., 2007; Wang et al., 2013). As a result, local and nationwide birth registration system in China became unreliable and incomplete, with frequent omissions of unplanned (or “unauthorised”) births (Jiang et al., 2013). Since the mid-1990s rural couples who could have a second birth often had to wait longer for the authorization in order to achieve the local-level quotas (Hu, 1998).
Only since the turn of the twenty-first century Chinese population policy began to show less demographic quantitative orientation, with more focus on individual well-being (Attané, 2002). Eventually, the extensive birth control policies in China have been abandoned or rolled back. The provinces which used to require minimum interval between the first and the second birth phased out these requirements. As of 2016, no birth spacing requirements remained in provincial regulations (Zhang & Liu, 2016), implying that couples could freely decide about the timing of their second birth. The “one child policy” was abandoned. In November 2013 it was replaced by “selective two-child policy” and since January 2016 by a “universal two-child policy”, whereby every couple was allowed to have two children. Most recently, a “three-child policy” announced on 31 May 2021 effectively spells the end of fertility limiting policies in China as very few women and couples desire to have more than two children.Footnote 1
Key fertility characteristics and family policy trends in Shandong province
Shandong is a coastal province in the East of China. It is the second most populous province in the country, with population of 91 million in 2016; in terms of the GDP per capita it ranked as the ninth wealthiest province in China in 2016. Shandong is also very diverse, with coastal regions being much more prosperous than interior prefectures. Similar to the other provinces in China, it experienced massive education expansion in the last decades, first concentrated at secondary education, but more recently also marked by a rapid rise in higher education, with the share of young people still studying in their early twenties surging rapidly after 2005. At the same time, also the share of never-married women past age 25 has increased fast since 2005 arguably as a result of their higher education, career aspirations, but also changing attitudes to marriage and women’s roles (Yu & Xie, 2015).
Shandong province has a long history of policies regulating reproduction. It took the leading role in national family planning policy enforcement and its subsequent deregulation in the last decades. The province enacted numerous regulations aimed to control birth timing in order to reach provincial and local population control targets. Overall, it had low level of family policy permissiveness (Attané, 2002), with ‘policy fertility’ level allowing on average 1.45 births per woman (Gu et al., 2007). The regulations regarding marriage age and childbearing in the province were established earlier than in most other provinces. As Fig. 1 shows, these policies changed frequently, with the eligibility criteria for the second births determined in part by a series of exceptions that varied from place to place and changed over time (Short & Zhai, 1998).
As early as in the 1960s some prefectures in the Shandong province stipulated later marriage and later childbearing rules in their cities. More cities followed suit in the 1970s. Shandong province was also among the first regions pioneering the “Wan, Xi, Shao” (Later, Longer, Fewer) policy. In 1979, minimum marriage age requirement had been set at 25 for rural males and 23 for rural females.
From 1980 Shandong province began implementing strict one-child policy. Later, the Shandong Province Family Planning Regulations, decreed in 1988, specified 13 categories of exceptions, defining which couples who allowed to have a second birth (Gu et al., 2007), with the minimum age at second birth set at 30. The provincial government pursued severe administrative control to limit early marriage and early childbearing since 1989, ahead of the national movement to tighten the enforcement of the birth-limiting program. Later marriage and later age at childbearing started to be included as key indicators in the annual performance evaluation at different level of local family planning in the province.
From 2001 Shandong province documents no longer emphasized the importance of later marriage and excluded it from the sets of population control evaluation indicators. One year later, since 2002, women in Shandong province could freely decide on the timing of their first birth. In 2013 the second birth spacing requirements were abandoned. Finally, as in the whole China, one-child policy was abandoned as well, and after a brief period of “selective two child policy” in 2014–2015, a universal policy of two children per couple came into the effect since January 2016.
Despite restrictive policy regulations, fertility in Shandong province did not fall as much as in some other prosperous Chinese provinces. The 2010 population Census showed a completed fertility at 1.48 births per woman born in 1970, about 10% below the national average (1.61). A 1% sample survey of 2015 put the completed fertility of these women in Shandong province at a slightly higher level of 1.56. This level is comparable to that in the lowest-fertility countries globally. Several national and provincial surveys suggest that women in Shandong province retained relatively high fertility intentions. In the 2004 Shandong province fertility survey, over 70% respondents preferred to have at least two children. The ideal number of children among married men and women aged 20–44 in the province was 1.92 in a national sample survey conducted in 2013, higher than in most other provinces (Zhuang et al., 2014). These relatively high reproductive intentions also help explaining why the province experienced a remarkable rebound in fertility following the recent abandonment of one-child policy (Sects. 4.2 and 4.5 below).