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More babies are usually born in China during the Year of Dragon but that's changing

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It's the Year of the Dragon, and some people believe babies born in dragon years can be smart, successful and rich. In China, that's meant more babies are typically born in dragon years, but the calculus of having a child is changing. NPR's John Ruwitch and producer Aowen Cao spoke with two women in China, one pregnant with a dragon baby and one not, to hear their stories.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Millie Gao is eight months pregnant, and she says she's having a child in part because of where she grew up, Shandong Province, home of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius.

MILLIE GAO: (Through interpreter) The tradition of Chinese culture for the past 5,000 years is to cultivate the next generation. And people from Shandong respect this tradition even more because Confucianism was born and developed there. And I can accept this.

RUWITCH: Her motivations are also very personal.

GAO: (Through interpreter) My two grandparents had four children each. That means my parents have eight cousins in total, and every Lunar New Year the whole family would gather together. And having four generations or even five generations in one room was moving.

RUWITCH: It's a scene she loved, and the 28-year-old hopes that when she gets old, she can be surrounded by a big family, too. It's just the path there is kind of lonely.

GAO: (Through interpreter) In general, people around me don't want to have children, 80% of them, I would say. I only have one good friend who had a baby last year, and I'm her only friend who's pregnant.

RUWITCH: And she does have concerns about bringing a child into the world. Top of mind is ensuring the kid gets a good education and the high cost of that in Hangzhou, the city where she lives in eastern China. But she's confident it'll all work out for her dragon baby in the end.

GAO: (Through interpreter) I don't think you should look at the bad side of having children. There are also some good aspects, like the fact that children give us love and companionship, and in the process of taking care of a child, we also grow.

RUWITCH: That's the kind of thinking the government is trying to encourage with propaganda and financial incentives. But it's an uphill battle. The average marriage age is rising, and last year saw a near 6% drop in the number of births, according to official statistics. The population decline was the largest since the famine of the Great Leap Forward more than 60 years ago.

NORAH GUO: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: About an hour away by high-speed train in Shanghai, Norah Guo lives with a roommate and her two cats, Baobao and Bambi.

GUO: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: She, too, grew up in northern China, where she says traditional values were strong.

GUO: (Through interpreter) When I was in college, my thinking was simple. I would study, then find a job and perhaps a stable boyfriend and then get married and have children, a process just like the majority of the people would have.

RUWITCH: Suffice it to say, her thoughts have changed pretty dramatically since she studied abroad and moved to the big city a few years back. She says she has zero interest in kids now, or even marriage. It's a radical change from past generations, part of a quiet revolt by many women in today's China against tradition and authority.

GUO: (Through interpreter) We often joke about the widowed marriage. It's a kind of marriage where the man thinks it's enough that he is a breadwinner, and he doesn't need to pay much attention to the family or do much housework or share responsibilities in marriage.

RUWITCH: Demographers say the birthrate will continue to fall, and economists say that threatens to be a major drag on growth. But none of this is on Norah's mind.

GUO: (Through interpreter) I might be a bit selfish, to be honest, but I don't want to sacrifice much of my time and energy, even my career, for family life.

RUWITCH: Kids are not in the cards for her, despite heavy pressure from her family back home.

GUO: (Through interpreter) I'm not confident that I can provide my kids with good living conditions. Raising a child today isn't like it was when I was little. Back then, it was just another pair of chopsticks at the dinner table.

RUWITCH: Today, she says, it's prohibitively expensive. She's also put off by the toll that childbirth takes on a woman's body, and she has no interest in changing her lifestyle.

GUO: (Through interpreter) All my time after work belongs to me. I can do whatever I want. I can also do nothing and just chill at home, play with my cats. For me, it's not about hobbies. The meaning of staying single and not having children is freedom, the freedom to choose what I want to do or what I don't want to do.

RUWITCH: And that's something the authorities are finding it hard to contend with.

John Ruwitch, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.