China's ban on the use of "assisted reproductive technology" for unmarried women is not new — it's been on the books for years — but it is making headlines after a Chinese director and actress, Xu Jinglei, revealed that she traveled to the United States in 2013 to freeze her eggs.
Xu, 41, framed the issue as simple matter of reproductive choice. According to a report in a Chinese magazine, she said her only regret was "that I am a little bit late in doing so" —prompting a slew of anxious stories in the state-controlled media, and an outpouring of support online.
Then blogger-turned-rally-car-driver Han Han weighed in, asking rhetorically: "Isn't it okay to just want a child but not want to marry a man?" The internet went nuts, with his initial post attracting tens of thousands of likes and a comment thread 18,000-posts long.
The debate has raised questions about the status of unmarried women in China, specifically, as Li Yinhe, one of China's leading sex researchers put it, "whether or not single women have reproductive rights."
China's coercive population policies do much to discourage single women from having kids. Unmarried mothers often can't get critical documents for their offspring, for instance, and are sometimes forced to pay fees.
The policy is driven by twin obsessions of the Chinese state: population control and social stability.
For decades now the government has controlled the population through marriage, says Li, primarily by limiting most couples to one child.
"The state thinks if it grants a single woman reproductive rights, population control will be messed up," she said.
This helps explain why the state's general lack of enthusiasm for reproductive technology of any sort. (If a married woman wants to freeze her eggs, she usually needs to prove it is for health reasons, and health reasons alone.)
But there's more to it. With China's population pyramid shifting, the government is slowly easing up on the one-child policy, increasing the number of couples — married, heterosexual couples — that are permitted to have a second child.
But single women? No.
This reflects the Communist Party's belief that a "harmonious family" (here defined as a married man and woman and legally registered child) is the bedrock of a "harmonious society," says Leta Hong Fincher, author ofLeftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China.
"The prospect of women being able to give birth on their own is very threatening to the moral order," she said.
Which is why Xu's comments made such waves.
Xu is one of a growing number of women who have the financial security to live on their own if they choose, and to travel outside China should they please.
Most women don't have those options — yet — but that does not mean they will not speak out, as they have done for Xu.
Li, the veteran sex researcher, says the government ought to change course, and adopt a more open policy.
"Because of population control, women were not allowed to have more than one child, now if they are not married, they can not have any," she said. "It's a little too cruel."