For several wonderful weeks, Zou Xiaoqi, a single mother in Shanghai, felt accepted by her government.
After giving birth in 2017, Ms. Zou, a financial clerk, went to court to question Shanghai's policy of granting maternity benefits only to married women. She had little success, losing one lawsuit and two appeals. Then, earlier this year, the city suddenly dropped its marriage obligation. In March, a jubilant Ms. Zou received a performance check on her bank account.
She had barely started partying when the government reintroduced policy a few weeks later. Unmarried women were again not entitled to government payments for medical care and paid vacation.
"I always knew there was this possibility," said Ms. Zou, 45 years old. "If you get me to return the money, I'll probably return it."
The Shanghai authorities' flip-flop reflects a broader view in China of longstanding attitudes towards family and gender.
Chinese law does not specifically prohibit single women from giving birth. However, official family planning guidelines only mention married couples, and local officials have long provided services based on these provisions. Only Guangdong Province, which borders Hong Kong, allows unmarried women to apply for maternity insurance. In many places women still face fines or other punishments for childbirth out of wedlock.
But as China's birthrate has fallen in recent years and a new generation of women embraced feminist ideals, these traditional values have come under increasing pressure. Now a small but determined group of women are demanding guaranteed maternity benefits regardless of marital status – and, more generally, recognition of their right to make their own reproductive choices.
The U-turn in Shanghai, however, highlights the challenges facing feminists in China, where women face deeply ingrained discrimination and a government that is suspicious of activism.
It also shows the authorities' reluctance to give up decades of control over family planning, even in the face of demographic pressures. The ruling Communist Party announced Monday that it would end its two-child policy, which allows couples to have three children , in the hope of reversing a falling birth rate. However, single mothers remain undetected.
"There has never been a change in the policy," said a Shanghai maternity insurance hotline when he was reached by phone. "Single mothers never met the requirements."
Ms. Zou, who found out she was pregnant after breaking up with her boyfriend, said she would continue to fight for recognition even though she didn't need the money.
"This is about the right to vote," she said. Currently, when an unmarried woman becomes pregnant, “You can either get married or have an abortion. Why not give people the right to a third choice? "
As education levels have risen in recent years, more and more Chinese women have refused marriage, childbirth, or both. According to government statistics, only 8.1 million couples got married in 2020, the lowest number since 2003.
With the rejection of marriage, the recognition of single mothers has increased. There are no official statistics on single mothers, but a 2018 report by the state-backed All-China Women's Association estimates that there will be at least 19.4 million single mothers in 2020. These included widowed and divorced women.
When Zhang A Lan, a 30-year-old filmmaker, grew up in central Hebei Province, unmarried mothers were viewed as defiled and sinful, she said. When she decided to give birth without getting married two years ago, it was common for people on social media to question these old stereotypes.
"Marriage is obviously not a prerequisite for childbirth," said Ms. Zhang, who gave birth to a boy last year.
Yet many women described a persistent gap between attitudes on the Internet and in reality.
Many Chinese are still concerned about the financial burden and social stigma that single mothers face, said Dong Xiaoying, a Guangzhou lawyer who advocates the rights of single mothers and gay couples. Lesbians are also often denied maternity rights because China does not recognize same-sex unions.
Ms. Dong, who wants to have a child out of wedlock herself, said her parents found the decision incomprehensible.
"It's a bit like getting out of the closet," said Ms. Dong, 32. "There's still a lot of pressure."
However, the biggest obstacles are official.
The authorities have started to recognize the reproductive rights of single women through some measures. A representative of the National People's Congress, China's legislature, has for years put forward proposals to improve the rights of unmarried women. While authorities have shut down other feminist groups, those who support unmarried mothers have largely escaped control.
The ease of contact with the authorities may be due, at least in part, to the alignment of women's goals with national priorities.
China's birth rate has declined in recent years after decades of one-child policies severely reduced the number of women of childbearing age. Recognizing the threat to economic growth, the government has begun pushing women to have more children. On Monday, she announced that couples would be allowed to have three children. The government's latest five-year plan, published last year, promised a more “inclusive” birth policy and raised hopes for recognition of unmarried mothers.
A state outlet was recently mentioned in a headline about the original relaxation of politics in Shanghai: "More and more Chinese cities are offering maternity insurance to unmarried mothers amid the demographic crisis."
But the obvious support only goes so far, said Ms. Dong. Far from promoting women's empowerment, the authorities recently tried to pull women out of the workforce and return to traditional gender roles – the opposite of what single motherhood would allow. "From a governance point of view, they don't really want to open up completely," she said.
The National Health Commission emphasized this year that family planning is the responsibility of “husbands and wives together”. In January, the Commission rejected a proposal to open up egg freezing to single women, citing ethical and health concerns.
Open rejection of gender norms can still lead to reprisals. Last month, Douban, a social media site, shut down several popular forums where women discussed their desire not to marry or have children. Site moderators accused the groups of "extremism," according to group administrators.
Shanghai's U-turn was the clearest example of the authorities' mixed message on the reproductive rights of unmarried women.
When the city appeared to be expanding maternity benefits earlier this year, officials never specifically mentioned unmarried women. Their announcement simply said that a "family planning review" that required a marriage certificate would no longer be conducted.
But in April women were asked again for their marriage certificates when applying online.
"The local administrators don't want to take responsibility," said Ms. Dong. "No higher national agency has said that these family planning rules can be relaxed so they don't dare to open that window."
Many women hope that pressures from an increasingly vocal public will make such regulations untenable.
32-year-old Teresa Xu saw this postponement firsthand in 2019 when she filed a lawsuit against China's ban on egg freezing for single women. At first the judge treated her like a "naive little girl," she said. But when her case found support on social media, officials became more respectful.
Even so, her case is still pending and officials have not given her an update in over a year. Ms. Xu said she was confident in the long run.
"There's no way of predicting what they're going to do in the next two or three years," she said. "But I think there are some things that cannot be denied when it comes to the development and desires of society. There is no way to reverse this trend."
Joy Dong contributed to the research.