GUANGDONG, South China — Xue Ruiquan follows the same routine each morning. After a 7 a.m. jog, he prepares breakfast for his wife and three children and then drives his eldest son — Chongchong — to school. “OK, off you go,” he says as he drops off the 7-year-old. “Dad needs to go to work now.”
But Xue is lying. The 44-year-old and his wife, Xie Zhengning, have been unemployed for nearly a year. The family is struggling to make ends meet, relying on savings and loans from friends and relatives to meet their mortgage payments.
In December 2018, Xue was fired from his job as a public security officer in the southern Chinese city of Yunfu, Guangdong province. Then, three months later, the local primary school where Xie taught mathematics terminated her contract.
Both lost their jobs for the same reason: breaking China’s birth restrictions by having a third child.
The firings have left the parents shocked and angry. For decades, Chinese workers faced dismissal for violating family-planning rules, but the pair had been assured such draconian measures had been abolished.
Xie and Xue have been affected by the ambiguity surrounding China’s family-planning regime as the country gradually — but unevenly — relaxes punishments for those having more than two kids, leaving parents and local officials uncertain about the rules.
The Chinese government started to introduce large-scale birth controls in the 1970s to curb population growth, and from 1980 the measures hardened into a nationwide one-child policy. Penalties for violators were harsh, ranging from large fines, to forced abortions and sterilizations.
The policy prevented more than 400 million births over the ensuing 35 years, the government claims. It also accelerated a steep fertility decline, leading to a rapidly aging society and a severe gender imbalance, with men outnumbering women by more than 31 million.
In a bid to mitigate these demographic issues, the government ended the one-child policy in 2016 enabling all couples to have two children. Xie gave birth to her second child, Lele, the same year.
But the reform has failed to reverse the country’s falling birth rate. Only 14.65 million…