Chinese women eye more study as state exhorts motherhood

Overseas universities could profit from ‘escape route’ role, as China’s women resist political pressure to produce the next generation

November 16, 2023
Chinese women walk across Abbey Road, London to illustrate Chinese women ‘see study as an escape’
Source: Getty images

When Chinese president Xi Jinping fronted the National Women’s Congress in Beijing last month, he told the country’s top female political gathering that it needed to “actively foster a new type of marriage and childbearing culture”. A week later, addressing the All-China Women’s Federation’s leadership, he urged his audience to pursue “supportive birth policies”.

It is a far cry from chairman Mao Zedong’s refrain that “women hold up half the sky”, a statement of equality at a time when China needed female workers. Vice-premier Ding Xuexiang broke with tradition in omitting any reference to gender equality during his speech to the national congress. Rather, he said, women must “write a more splendid chapter of ‘half the sky’” in which they “consciously integrate their life goals into the party’s goals” and “establish correct views on marriage, love, childbirth and family”.

As the shrinking and ageing of China’s population threatens to inflame its economic slowdown, young women are being told that their primary contribution lies not so much in joining the workforce as producing the next generation of workers and consumers. Those unattracted by this prospect are casting around for alternatives, and education is a compelling one – heralding new opportunities for universities overseas.

While men usually outnumber women among Australia’s international students, women have dominated the Chinese cohort for at least two decades, often comprising more than 55 per cent – although their share narrowed to 53 per cent during the pandemic. Angela Lehmann, head of research with The Lygon Group consultancy, expects the feminisation of Australia’s Chinese university student cohort to accelerate under the Communist Party’s “mothering” drive.

This could be good news for Antipodean universities, with Lygon analyses of undergraduate success rates concluding that foreign women consistently outperform their male counterparts and domestic students of both sexes. But institutions must tailor their courses, employment add-ons, health services, social activities and recruitment messages to appeal to this group, Dr Lehmann said.

“Little shifts and tweaks in terms of communications and marketing can make a huge difference and [show] students [that] we hear them and understand their challenges,” she said.

China is following a familiar narrative. Economic and educational development usually coincides with women having fewer children, and bearing them later in life. But political imperatives are moving in the opposite direction, with the longstanding one-child limit relaxed to two in 2015 and three in 2021.

In effect, Beijing has jettisoned all restrictions on offspring numbers. It has also vowed to “reduce the costs of childbirth, childcare and education”. But locals are scornful, according to Ophenia Liang, director of Sydney multilingual marketing company Digital Crew. “They prefer not to have children…because raising children is very expensive.”

Government subsidies do not cover childcare, preschool or after-hours tuition, Ms Liang explained. And the older generation is often reluctant to lend a hand. “They have grown up…experiencing all this huge economic growth. They just want to enjoy it. A lot of them actually don’t prefer to help out with grandchildren.”

Fran Martin, professor of cultural studies at the University of Melbourne, said some female Chinese students feared that their country’s social and economic development had peaked and things were now going “backwards”.

“Everything is overshadowed by the slowing economy. The cost of living is so out of control. Youth unemployment, on government figures, is over 20 per cent. It’s absolutely dire.”

Professor Martin said the trend of Chinese women undertaking overseas master’s study as an “escape route” from marriage and motherhood pressures – a phenomenon she first documented in 2016 – was likely to intensify as the “online gender wars” took a nastier edge.

“There are big swathes of less privileged men who can’t find someone to marry…blaming women for being too picky and not wanting to get married. There are women who don’t like being told that.”

She said a subset of Chinese students had also rejected their “hypercompetitive” society, preferring to “backpack around the world and experience different cultures. Kids from…wealthy nations have been doing that for a while but it’s interesting to see young women from small cities in China taking on that set of values.

“They’ll tell me: ‘I would have been a different person if I hadn’t studied abroad. I would have followed the standard pathway.’”

Dr Lehmann said 2023 had been dubbed “the year of the drifter” on Chinese social media. She said universities should collaborate with tourism operators in responding to trends like “city walking”, in which Chinese visitors seek out more authentic destinations such as back streets with “interesting coffee shops”.

She criticised a “one-dimensional” perception of Chinese students as solely motivated by career-boosting credentials. Migration, gender factors and the “alternative lifestyle experience” were also drawcards, and universities should take note. “There might be additional potential cohorts of students that we could really be nurturing right now.”

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