One Child: Life, Love and Parenthood in Modern China by Mei Fong
(Oneworld Publications), Pp. 236
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong has spent eight years documenting the effects of the one-child policy across Chinese society. In this critically acclaimed account, she weaves together personal stories and social politics to produce an evocative investigation into how the policy has changed China and why the repercussions will be felt across the world for decades to come.
The one-child policy was introduced in 1979; it was ‘relaxed’ in 2013 and phased out in 2016. Mei Fong argues that it was flawed from the initial concept when it was introduced as a form of population control, and that population growth would have decreased naturally without the need for such draconian measures. Even since the abandonment of the one-child policy, the birth rate in China is not increasing. Polls reveal that although couples would like to have two children, many say “it’s unaffordable, too stressful, and will impinge on their personal goals too much…by having one child, they can better concentrate their resources and have a more successful child.”
As it was, the policy led to many unforeseen issues, including the number of enforced abortions and sterilisations. “In one year alone, 1983, China sterilised over 20 million people, more than the combined population of the three largest US cities, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.”
During the system of the one-child policy, the law was relaxed to allow people to pay to have a second child. Naturally this benefitted the rich (and arguably led to a more affluent, urban and spoiled population) while providing a source of income for poorer counties where families were charged heavy compensation fees (shehui fuyangfei) for having more than one child. As these fines were the only income that did not have to be handed over to the central government/ national treasury ‘for redistribution’ they were rigidly enforced.
In a society which is geared towards marriage and family, this policy has long-reaching effects on cultural attitudes, such as the creation of the Little Emperor phenomenon, and the shocking treatment of elders. The author uncovered many harrowing instances of elder abuse as the spoiled single offspring no longer see the necessity of caring for their parent. “The one-child policy significantly reduced the number of care-givers for China’s elderly, not just in quantity alone, but also in quality. There are fewer women in China now – and by extension, fewer daughters-in-law, and they’re the ones who really take care of the elderly.”
There are terrible stories of geriatrics being put in pigpens by their children or shunted off to unsanitary nursing homes where they wait to die. If this trend continues there will be insufficient young people to care for the current population. According to academic predictions, “Somewhere in the decade between 2020 and 2030 China’s absolute population will hit is peak and start to decline. By 2100, China’s population could have declined back to 1950 levels of about 500 million.”
Perhaps to Western sensibilities, one of the more obvious side effects is the treatment of women. “With the current gender imbalance, women are certainly more valuable, but not necessarily more valued. In addition to a rising anti-feminist backlash, the female shortage has resulted in increasing commodification of women. Prostitution and sex-trafficking in China have been on the rise for the past decade.” Many women in neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and North Korea, are forced or tricked into being sold as wives for Chinese men.
In the last two decades 120,000 children from China have been adopted internationally. Naturally this has “significantly shaped global attitudes toward race, family, and the ethics of intercountry adoption” but is it all ethical? Mei Fong asks, “Is the wave of Chinese adoptions, as many believe, an altruistic act that rescues hundreds of unwanted, mostly female children from a life of penury and institutionalization – or is it really baby buying on an international scale, sanctioned and even facilitated by the Chinese government?” She discovers multiple incidents of babies being stolen and sold to orphanages.
Ethical questions also arise regarding fertility and consequent eugenics. With the ability to have only one child, many people are using reproductive technologies to have the kind of children they want “This usually means choosing the sex and the number – twins are favoured – and screening out genetic diseases. In cases where an egg donor is desired – and where genetic material is passed on – Chinese parents are also trying to select traits like intelligence, height, looks, blood type, even double eyelids.”