Chinese Studies
2013. Vol.2, No.4, 152-155
Published Online November 2013 in SciRes (
Open Access
Fertility Preferences of the Post-1980s Generation in
Urban China
Lei Xu
Department of Geography, California State University, Fullerton, USA
Received July 26th, 2013; revised September 2nd, 2013; accepted September 12th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Lei Xu. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution
License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original
work is properly cited.
Born under the one-child policy and growing up in an environment of tremendous socioeconomic change,
the post-1980s generation of China tends to have interesting fertility preferences. This study explores the
fertility desire, gender preference, and potential utilization of fetal ultrasound among the post-1980s indi-
viduals in urban China, based on a survey conducted in Beijing and Puyang, China. The ideal number of
children among the post-1980s was substantially lower than the replacement level. 26% of the respon-
dents considered China’s family planning policies as the most important determinant of their fertility de-
sire, whereas 57% of the respondents indicated economic factors as the major determinant. With respect
to gender preference, nearly half of the respondents who desired one child indicated no preference, and
79% of those who desired two children preferred 1 boy and 1 girl. In terms of potential utilization of ul-
trasound, the large majority of the respondents indicated an intention to use ultrasound to check the well-
ness of the fetus. Nearly half of them wanted to know the gender of the fetus via ultrasound examination,
which is illegal in China. The findings imply that urban China has been experiencing a transition from a
top-down governmental promoted fertility decline to a bottom-up individual voluntary choice of low fer-
tility. In the context of below replacement fertility and population ageing, step-by-step relaxations of the
family planning policies may lead to a small, gradual, and beneficial fertility increase.
Keywords: China; Post-1980s Generation; Fertility Desire; Ideal Parity; Gender Preference; Family
It has been over four decades since Mainland China (hereaf-
ter China) implemented its series of family planning policies.
The “wan-xi-shao --” (i.e. later-longer-fewer) policy
was introduced in 1970 aiming to reduce China’s fertility level.
Although it was not mandatory, the policy strongly encouraged
people to have later marriages, longer child spacing and fewer
children. This policy helped to reduce the total fertility rate
(TFR) substantially from 5.8 to 2.75 (Liang & Lee, 2006). In
1979 the so-called “one-child policy” was officially introduced
by the Chinese government. China’s TFR further declined from
2.75 in 1979 to 1.49 in 1998. When the national policy was
implemented by the local governments and family-planning
committees in different regions of China, it created highly lo-
calized manifestations and features (Gu et al., 2007). In general,
the policy was strictly enforced in the eastern, coastal regions,
moderately enforced in the central regions, and relaxed in the
western regions (Zhu, Lu, & Hesketh, 2009). It was particularly
strictly enforced in urban areas of China. The number of chil-
dren for each couple was closely monitored and recorded by the
household registration system (i.e. hukou 户口). Although
there were except ions for ethnic minorities, couples whose first
child is seriously disabled, and other special cases, the vast
majority of urban residents of China were subject to the
one-child-per-family rule. Adherence to the rule would lead to
social and economic benefits, such as priority status for schools
and housing, honor certificates, and monthly food subsidies,
while break of the rule would result in monetary penalty and
even a demotion, which was particularly true for government
workers and officials as well as workers of state-owned enter-
prises (Veeck et al., 2011). Thus the TFR in urban China was
very low—it decreased to 1.13 by 1998, compared to 1.52 in
rural China (Liang & Lee, 2006). It is clear that fertility behav-
iors of the Chinese people have changed dramatically, either
involuntarily or voluntarily. Furthermore, the gender imbalance
of China’s new generations is stunning. In the Chinese tradi-
tional Confucian ideology, the continuation of family line is
through male descendants, who take family pride and provide
labor and old-age security for their parents (Arnold & Liu, 1986;
Wang, 2005; Yan, 2003; Zeng et al., 1993; Zhang, Feng, &
Zhang, 2006). The traditional son preference, combined with
the implementation of the family planning programs and avail-
ability of sex selection technologies such as ultrasound, might
have resulted in sex-selective abortions in China (Chu, 2001).
The sex ratio at birth increased since 1980s. It was 117 (i.e. 117
males per 100 females) in 2000, and was particularly high in
rural areas where couples were allowed to have a second child
if their first one was a girl (Zhu, Lu, & Hesketh, 2009). An
obvious consequence of high sex ratio at birth is an imbalance
between the sexes in future marriage opportunities. The State
Population and Family Planning Commission predicted that
there would be more than 30 million “surplus” males in the 20 -
45 age interval in 2020 (Zeng, 2007), which will lead to “mar-
riage squeeze” and bring substantial social issues.
The timing of the “one-child policy” initiation was just about
the introduction of China’s “open door policy”, announced by
Deng Xiaoping in December 1978. Since then, China’s econ-
omy grew at substantially high rates, accompanied with sig-
nificant sociocultural changes. It seemed that many of the mid-
dle-class individuals, especially those in urban China, started to
reduce their fertility voluntarily as the “opportunity cost” of
having children increased. Under the circumstances of eco-
nomic, sociocultural and political changes, research on the
changing attitude in fertility among Chinese young people is
important, yet very limited in the literature. With few excep-
tions (e.g. Whyte & Gu, 1987; Zhang et al., 2006), most re-
search on China’s fertility issues examined the actually fertility
rather than desired fertility. This research aims at investigating
the fertility preferences of the post-1980s generation in urban
areas of China. Specifically, the study seeks the answers to such
questions as how many children are desired and why, whether
the traditional strong preference for male descendants still hold
true for China’s new generation of “parents”, whether a change
in population policy affect the fertility desire of the younger
generation, and how ultrasound technology will be utilized
during childbearing. The post-1980s generation is referred to as
the individuals who were born between 1980 and 1989. They
are the “product” of China’s one child policy, rapid economic
development, and tremendous social changes. The post-1980s
are now in their marriage and reproductive ages. Their fertility
preferences on the number and gender of their future children
will shed some light on the future fertility level of China. They
will also provide insightful policy implications on the possible
adjustment and revision of China’s family planning programs.
Description of Sample
This study is based on a questionnaire survey conducted in
June—December 2010 in two cities—Beijing and Puyang.
Beijing is China’s capital city, located in North China. It is
China’s political, cultural and educational center as well as
economic and financial management center. The city of Puyang,
Henan province is located in central China. It is a medium-
sized city based on petrochemical industries. The two cities
were selected for covering the post-1980s in both large interna-
tional metropolis and interior middle-sized city, and for inves-
tigating differences between the two. In total, 828 individuals
responded the survey.
The survey collected data on a wide range of personal attrib-
utes such as migrant/non-migrant status, urban or rural hukou
registration, age, gender, marital status, educationa l attainment,
employment, socioeconomic status, and parental family size.
The questionnaire asked questions on ideal parity (i.e. ideal
number of children), gender preference, intention to utilize fetal
ultrasound, and the underlying reasons for the fertility prefer-
ences. Cross-tabulation was used to analyze the data and dis-
cover pattern. The questionnaire also contained quite a few
open-ended questions, to gain insights on the fertility behaviors
of the respondents. Having a child might change one’s fertility
desire and gender preference afterwards, so the questionnaire
asked different sets of questions for individuals who already
had children versus those who had not.
With respect to the demographic profile of the sample, the
post-1980s (i.e. those whose age lied between 21 and 30 at the
time of the survey) represented 59.9% of the sampled individu-
als. In terms of educational attainment, the vast majority of the
respondents were high school graduates, and 56.5% of the re-
spondents had Bachelor’s degree or above (Table 1).
With respect to sex composition, 56.4% were females and
43.6% were males. The sample was slightly female dominant,
probably because young women were more likely to participate
in survey and/or were more interested in the research topic than
young men. In terms of household registration status, 79% of
the respondents had urban registration whereas as 21% were
under rural registration. Around 60% of the individuals were
non-migrants (i.e. permanent residents of the city), and 40%
were migrants. About self-perceived economic status, 67%
considered themselves as “good”, 17% indicated “very good”,
and 15% of them thought their economic conditions were “not
so good”. 44.6% of the sampled individuals were the only child
of their family, and 8% of the respondents were ethnic minori-
Main Findings
Ideal Parity
This research revealed that the ideal parity among the
post-1980s generation was far below the replacement level (i.e.
2.1). For those who did not have children, the ideal parity was
as low as 1.26, with a 95% standard error being .05. When
comparing the age groups 21 - 25 and 26 - 30, the respective
ideal parities were not significantly different.
The results also suggested that the desired number of chil-
dren was about the same between the migrants and non-mi-
grants (Table 2). Moreover, there were no apparent differences
in ideal parity with respect to different genders, educational
attainment, household registration status, being the only child
or not, employment status, and self-perceived economic status.
However, significant difference in ideal parity was discovered
between ethnic minorities (1.09) and non-minorities (1.27).
Table 1.
Age and educational attainment of the sampled indivi d ua l s.
Age Composition (n = 828)
20 or below21 - 25 26 - 30 31 - 35 36 - 40Above 40
5% 33.3% 26.6% 18.3% 8.6% 8.3%
Distribution by Educational Attainmen t (n = 828)
GraduateUndergraduateCollege High
School Middle
School Elementary
13.7% 42.8% 28.2% 11.3% 3.3% .7%
Table 2.
Ideal parity of the post-1980s generation.
Characteristics of
Respondents Ideal Parity 95% Standard Error
Migrants 1.27 .07
Non-migrants 1.25 .06
Ethnic Minori ty 1.09 .10
Non-minority 1.27 .05
Beijing 1.42 .11
Puyang 1.06 .03
Open Access 153
This finding was very interesting. The ethnic minorities were
given the privilege to have more than one child, but it seemed
that factors other than policy privilege accounted for their fer-
tility desire. Furthermore, the ideal number of children was
higher in Beijing than in Puyang.
The choice of ideal parity is a complex decision making
process that results from many factors, such as skyrocketing
housing prices, high costs of child-raising and education, op-
portunity costs of bearing children, peer pressure, aspiration for
personal achievement, and drastic competition at work. The
open ended questions in the survey helped collect information
on the major determinants of fertility behaviors. The most fre-
quently cited determinant, according to the survey respondents,
was the economic ability to raise children. 57% of the post-
1980s respondents considered economic capability as the most
important determinant of their ideal parity. The second most
frequently cited factor was China’s family planning policies.
26% of the post-1980s respondents indicated that family plan-
ning policies affected their fertility decision. Upon being asked
“Would you like to have more children if you had a substantial
improvement in economic condition?” 34.2% of the post-1980s
indicated an interest in having more children. On being asked
“Would you like to have more children if current family plan-
ning policies were revised to allow greater number of chil-
dren?” 14.5% of the respondents would want more children as a
response to the policy change. It is clear that economic factors
are more influential in fertility desire than the family planning
policies. Two other factors that accounted for ideal parity, al-
though much less frequently cited, were Chinese traditional
values on fertility, and pressure from parents.
Gender Preference
The findings indicate that the new generation of China’s
child-bearing adults left the traditional attitudes of son prefer-
ence behind. Among the post-1980s who desired one child,
nearly half respondents indicated no preference on child’s gen-
der. There was no strong preference towards either gender al-
though the migrants showed a slight preference for boys (Table
For those who desired two children, 79% preferred 1 boy and
1 girl, while 18% had no gender preference. The preference of
the “1 boy and 1 girl” combination was particularly highly rep-
resented by the migrants (88.9%), compared to the non-mi-
grants (69.7%) (Table 3). Upon being asked “How would you
manage to have two children under the current one child policy
in urban China?” many of the respondents indicated that they
were allowed to have two children because both husbands and
Table 3.
Gender preference of the p ost-1980s generation, by ideal parity.
Gender Preference Non-migrants Migrants
Boy 27.2% 30.8%
Girl 28.1% 22.3%
Parity = 1
No Preferenc e 44.7% 46.9%
Gender Preference Non-migrants Migrants
2 Boys .0% .0%
2 Girls 6.1% .0%
1 Boy and 1 Girl 69.7% 88.9%
Parity = 2
No Preferenc e 24.2% 11.1%
wives were the only child of their family. Among those who
were not the only child, there were special strategies cited to
“beat-the-system”, such as giving the second birth abroad, and
giving the second birth in China and ready to pay for the fine.
The major determinants of the gender preference were also
investigated. Based on cited frequencies, the most cited reasons
for preference for boys include: 1) the traditional idea that sons
are the pillar of the family, 2) the belief of bringing up sons to
support parents in old age, 3) the Chinese ideology of family
continuation via male descendents, 4) raising a boy is easier
than raising a girl, and 5) parents look forward to a grandson.
The most frequently cited reasons for preference for girls in-
clude the following: 1) girls are considerate, like mom’s “warm
jacket”; 2) girls tend to take care of parents in old age very well;
3) girls are obedient and save parents a lot worries; 4) it is a
blessing to have girls, and 5) the cost of raising a girl is rela-
tively low, particularly at the time of marriage when the
groom’s family prepares and is responsible for betrothal gifts.
Use of Fetal U ltrasound
With respect to the potential use of fetal ultrasound or other
advanced technology, over 94% of the post-1980s respondents
mentioned that they would use fetal ultrasound examination to
check the health and wellness of the fetus. About 46% of them
indicated that they wanted to know the sex of the fetus via ul-
trasound examination. In China it is illegal for the ultrasound
technician and doctor to reveal the gender of the fetus, but
many ultrasound machines are now in illegal or private clinics,
so that people can have ultrasounds done in secret. Being asked
if they wanted to determine the sex of the fetus via ultrasound
in case it became legal, over three quarter of them said “yes”.
Upon being asked “What if the gender determined by ultra-
sound is not the preferred one?” 95% of the respondents said
they would still keep and raise the child, and 4% indicated that
they would raise the child but try to have an additional baby
that fits their preference. 1% of them indicated that they would
choose to have a sex-selective abortion.
Concluding Discussion
Based on a questionnaire survey, this study is one of the first
investigations on the fertility desire and gender preference of
the post-1980s generation in urban China. The post-1980s indi-
viduals indicated a very low ideal parity. The most important
determinant was China’s family planning policies for 26% of
the respondents, and economic factors for 57% of them. About
half of the respondents who desired one child indicated no
gender preference, and 79% of those who desired two children
preferred the 1-boy-&-1-girl combination. With respect to po-
tential ultrasound utilization, the large majority indicated an
intention to use ultrasound to check fetus wellness. Nearly half
of them hoped that ultrasound technicians could disclose the
gender of the fetus, which has been illegal in China.
The main findings suggest that the younger generation of
Chinese value more on the quality of care of children than on
the quantity or gender of children. Moreover, the fertility desire
of the post-1980s implies that the urban areas of China have
been experiencing a transition from a top-down governmental
promoted (if not forced) fertility decline to a bottom-up indi-
vidual voluntary choice of low fertility. Furthermore, the results
of the research imply that socioeconomic factors are more in-
fluential than family planning policies in fertility choice. How-
Open Access
Open Access 155
ever, as one of the basic national policies in China, the one
child policy continues to play an important role in checking
population, especially for the urban residents who desire more
children, not mention the many families in the vast rural areas
of China that demand greater number of labor.
China’s situation today is tremendously different from the
context in which the one-child policy was initiated several
decades ago. In the context of below replacement fertility for
over 20 years, trend of population ageing, and changing eco-
nomic, social, and cultural environment, the findings of this
study suggest that a relaxation of the one-child policy is
unlikely to result in a substantial increase in fertility in urban
China. On the contrary, step-by-step relaxations of the family
planning policies, such as the strategy of “demographic soft
landing” suggested by Zeng (2007), will tend to lead to a small
and gradual bounce-back of the fertility. This slight or moderate
fertility increase will be highly beneficial for China as it helps
to reduce the negative consequences of population ageing and
gender imbalance.
The author is very thankful to the dedication and hard work
of the editors and anonymous reviewers. The author takes the
full responsibility for the opinions expressed in this paper.
Arnold, F., & Liu, Z. (1986). Sex preference, fertility, and family plan-
ning in China. Population and Development Review, 12, 221-246.
Chu, J. H. (2001). Prenatal sex determination and sex-selective abortion
in rural central China. Population and Development Review, 27,
Gu, B., Wang, F., Guo, Z., & Zhang, E. (2007). China’s local and na-
tional fertility policies at the end of the twentieth century. Population
and Development Review, 33, 129-147.
Liang, Q., & Lee, C. F. (2006). Fertility and population policy: An
overview. In D. L. Poston Jr., et al. (Eds.), Fertility, family planning,
and population policy in China (pp. 8-19). New York: Routledge.
Veeck, G., Pannell, C. W., Smith, C. J., & Huang, Y. (2011). China’s
geography: Globalization and the dynamics of political, economic,
and social change (2nd ed.). Lanham, MA: Rowman and Littlefield
Wang, W. (2005). Son preference and educational opportunities of
children in China—“I wish you were a boy!” Gender Issues, 22, 3-
Whyte, M. K., & Gu, S. (1987). Popular response to China’s fertility
transition. Population and D e v elopment Review, 13, 471-493.
Yan, Y. (2003). Private life under socialism: Love, intimacy and family
change in a Chinese village, 1949-1999. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press.
Zeng, Y. (2007). Options of fertility policy transition in China. Popula-
tion and Development Review, 33, 215-246.
Zeng, Y., Ping, T., Gu, B., Yi, X., Li, B., & Li, Y. (1993). Causes and
implications of the recent increase in the reported sex ratio at birth in
China. Population and Development Review, 19, 283-302.
Zhang, L., Feng, X., & Zhang, Q. (2006). Changing patterns of desired
fertility. In D. L. Poston Jr., et al. (Eds.), Fertility, family planning,
and population policy in China (pp. 89-109 ). New York: Routledge.
Zhu, W. X., Lu, L., & Hesketh, T. (2009). China’s excess males, sex
selective abortion, and one child policy. British Medical Journal, 338,