China's One-Child Policy
Concerns about an aging population and a diminishing workforce to support them have prompted the change to China's one child policy. Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

A government-run company in China’s central province of Henan has aroused a storm of controversy by telling women they must inform their bosses in advance if and when they plan to get pregnant -- while warning that anyone who had an “unscheduled pregnancy” would be fined and would not be considered for promotions or other rewards.

The credit cooperative (the rural Chinese equivalent of a bank) in Jiaozuo city said in an email to staff that any woman who received permission to have a child, but did “not conceive within schedule” and thus “severely hinder[ed] work efficiency” would lose her bonuses and would have to apply again for permission, the Beijing-based Global Times reported. The company also said women each must have worked there for at least a year before applying to have a child.

In response to the controversy that erupted after the message was posted online, one company official told local media that the credit cooperative had recently taken on many young female staff, and “if all of them simultaneously get pregnant, work would be disrupted, which has happened before,” the Global Times said.

However, the company indicated the directive was only a draft and would be reconsidered should a majority of staff oppose it, according to local reports, which also quoted an official at Jiaozuo’s family-planning commission as saying that the guidelines violated “a female employee's reproductive rights.”

Nevertheless, one woman worker at the credit cooperative told Chinese media that staff had little choice but to follow such rules if they were imposed, because “it’s not easy to get a job.” And similar directives are nothing new to women in China -- where the country’s family-planning policies have not only limited many families each to a single child in recent decades, but also require women to be 20 before they are formally allowed to marry and have children. Meanwhile, government-operated work units, and some residential neighborhoods, have also traditionally imposed annual quotas for the number of births among their staff members or residents.

The rise of private enterprise and the shrinking role of the state in China’s economy has reduced the influence of such regulations, at least in major cities, where people who do not work for the state simply have to pay fines when they breach the rules -- although some citizens have recently railed against this policy, too.

And the angry response to the Henan company’s policies also reflects ongoing changes in social attitudes regarding freedom of choice on this issue: As well as angry remarks online, there were a number of outspoken commentaries in several Chinese newspapers Friday. “Queuing up to give birth strips the clothes away from civilization ... and shows no respect for law or humanity,” the Beijing Times said, while the Huashangbao said the problem was a lack of clear laws to protect women’s rights: It proposed a large fine for anyone who tried to infringe on a woman’s reproductive rights.

Other media said the case was a reminder of the problems women face in finding jobs in some sectors of the Chinese economy -- with the state sector seen as one of the biggest offenders. And a few commentators called for a system of maternity coverage, something still lacking in many Chinese work units.

The outspoken comments echo those over China’s one-child policy, which was partially relaxed in late 2013 to allow couples to have two children, provided one of the parents was an only child. And with fears of the economic impact of an aging population structure in major Chinese cities, there have been repeated calls to fully open up the rules to allow every couple to have two children: Some experts predict this could happen within two years, although Zhai Zhenwu, head of the China Population Studies Association, said recently that such reforms were likely to take around five years.

(In practice, however, enthusiasm for having a second child has been less than many experts anticipated -- with some urban families saying having a second child is simply too expensive.)

Chinese Internet users and media commentators recently also expressed outrage over the case of a woman who remarried, and was therefore given permission to have a second child by her home province, according to local rules, but was refused permission by the authorities in her husband’s hometown, where she was living, because the rules were different there. She was told she would lose her job as a teacher should she go ahead with her pregnancy. In the face of major media and online pressure, however, the authorities eventually relented -- but not all women in China are so lucky, and some state media analysts said at the time that people should not have to rely on a media outcry to avoid such punishments.