The Cost of One Child

 

YIFU DONG reviews One Child, a new book about China’s One-Child Policy by journalist Mei Fong.

 

I have always wanted siblings. This longing crept up when I was eleven, the year my family spent in the US Before and after that, my Beijing schools were packed with only children, but in the US, nearly all of my classmates and friends had siblings. Quite naturally, I grew jealous and was certain that having a sibling would be a plus in my life.

But before I was eleven, I had already known exactly why I couldn’t have a sibling. The reason was China’s One-Child Policy. This policy was proposed in the late 1970s and formally adopted in 1980. It stipulates that every family can have only one child, though certain exceptions apply. Violators of the policy are subject to heavy fines and other administrative punishments.

Although the policy has had a direct impact on my life, I have come to realize that I am one of the more fortunate victims after reading One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. In her latest book, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong reveals the human cost of China’s One-Child Policy.

Despite the fact that the One-Child Policy was abolished at around the same time One Child was published in late 2015 to give way to a Two-Child Policy that allows families to have up to two children, Fong suggests that the impact of the One-Child Policy will reverberate for years to come.

Fong, an ethnically Chinese woman and the youngest daughter born to a family that desperately wanted a son, pays a visit to her family village in China and personally testified to the gender discrimination: the family tree recorded very few births of girls.

If given some brief hints, perhaps even a first grader can tell that the One-Child Policy—two parents producing only one child—will lead to a gradual decline in population. This decline can be startling. According to Fong, even with the Two-Child Policy now in place, most parents are wary of the cost of bringing up a second child. If this trend continues, China’s population will peak between 2020 and 2030 but will shrink to a mere 500 million, back to the 1950 level, by 2100. This “disappearance” of around one billion people will be the largest population reduction in human history, more than the mass deaths China has constantly witnessed in times of war and famine throughout centuries. Despite the excessive force used in its enforcement, the One-Child Policy is not outright mass murder, but it takes away people’s rights to reproduce and prevents the creation of hundreds of millions of lives.

A common rationale for the One-Child Policy is that fewer people make larger economic growth possible. Fong corrects this misconception in the prologue by pointing out China’s economic miracle depended on a mass, cheap labor force. Indeed, China’s current economic downturn is partly due to a shortage of workers, and this problem will likely remain for years to come due to the expansive three decades of time the One-Child Policy lasted.

Fong exposes the unscientific and radical nature of the policy but does not go as far as some Chinese intellectuals in displaying the calculus from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party. Even though it is obvious that allowing two children for each family is healthier and more sustainable in the long run, the Communist Party only focused on its short-term survival in the 1970s. The disastrous policies of the Mao era killed millions and left the living in abject poverty. By the logic of the Chinese authorities, the main reason for famines and poverty was that there was not enough food to feed everyone. Therefore, the fewer the mouths to feed, the better the economy would be. In official propaganda, people are encouraged to have fewer children and raise more pigs and plant more trees. Liu Junning, a famous Chinese liberal intellectual, once commented regarding the One-Child Policy, “It seems that if China has one person and hundreds of millions of pigs, it will become the richest nation in the world.”

Fong makes a convincing case by showing readers the radical origin, heavy-handed implementation and potentially severe consequences of the One-Child Policy, leaving no stone unturned.

The apparent flaw in the authorities’ reasoning, as Liu and other critics of the policy have pointed out, is that human beings are seen solely as a burden to the regime, not creators of wealth and contributors to society. The One-Child Policy, put simply, represents a fundamental disrespect for the value of human life. Fong does not explicitly make this point, but she shows the negative impact the policy has on different groups of individuals, echoing this broader critique of the policy.

The impact the policy has on the whole of society, Fong reveals, includes a rapidly aging population and a huge gender imbalance. Given Chinese culture’s preference for boys to girls and the One-Child rule, many families abandon newborn girls or choose abortion if they find out the fetus is female. Fong, an ethnically Chinese woman and the youngest daughter born to a family that desperately wanted a son, pays a visit to her family village in China and personally testified to the gender discrimination: the family tree records very few births of girls. This obsession with boys is also ominous for boys, for China will have 30 to 40 million surplus men by 2020. Fong visits spontaneous marriage markets in major parks across Chinese cities, with parents putting their own sons and daughters in ads. She even attends a dating fair herself, where relationship and marriage have become mere commodities. Fong also explains the increasing expense of caili (the dowry the husband pays the wife’s family) and also leads readers to a sex doll factory. Together with these new social phenomena, Fong also helpfully introduces popular newfangled Chinese idioms such as kubi, diaosi and zhainan. Throughout the book, twinges of sadness are behind the commoditization of sex and marriage, the anxiety of parents, the plight of surplus men and the discrimination facing women.

Besides ramifications of the general trends, Fong focuses on the anomalies, also vivid illustrations of the effects of the One-Child Policy. The book begins with the deadly 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed thousands of only children and left parents in despair, an event that prompted Fong to further investigate the One-Child Policy. Since the One-Child Policy, in essence, is more an order from the Communist Party than merely a law, local government officials were pressured to adhere to the policy at all costs. Fong reports the trauma of women who underwent late-term abortions as well as government employees who strictly enforced the policy. Fong’s investigation also goes beyond China’s borders, with stories of Chinese adoptees and their American parents, as well as Chinese parents and their American surrogate mothers.

When I first saw the title of the book, I doubted whether calling the One-Child Policy the most radical experiment in China was an overstatement. But overall, Fong makes a convincing case by showing readers the radical origin, heavy-handed implementation and potentially severe consequences of the One-Child Policy, leaving no stone unturned. However, the significance of the book goes beyond the One-Child Policy itself: it documents just how many individuals in China bear the cost of policies from the top.
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ONE CHILD: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment

By Mei Fong

250 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.

 

Yifu Dong is a junior at Yale University and a co-managing editor of the magazine. Contact him at yifu.dong@yale.edu.

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