The End of China’s One-Child Policy? An Interview with Mei Fong

The End of China’s One-Child Policy? An Interview with Mei Fong

A 1980s propaganda poster for the one-child policy

What exactly did the recent Third Plenum reveal about Xi Jinping’s strategy for dealing with the big issues facing China in the nine years left in his time heading the Chinese Communist Party? Initially, the consensus seemed to be that the meeting lacked the kind of dramatic calls for change that some hoped for or expected. But as more details were released, commentators began to see signs that Xi was ready to restart stalled social and economic reforms, though not political and civil libertarian ones.

It’s become increasingly clear that China faces an important demographic challenge due to its graying population. The international press has long been fascinated by the birth limitation drive typically described as the “One-Child Policy,” so not surprisingly, much attention has been given to news that the CCP seems ready to walk back from its efforts to limit most couples to a single child. This struck me as an ideal time to send some questions to Mei Fong, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who is working on a book about that policy. Just before she headed off to Beijing on a reporting trip, Fong sent me the following answers to my questions:

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: You are working on a book about China’s “one-child policy,” a topic about which a lot has been written over the years by both journalists and scholars. How exactly is your approach going to be distinctive, in terms of what you cover, your focus, and so on?

Mei Fong: A lot of what’s been written in the past has focused exclusively on certain aspects of the policy—the gender imbalance, for example, or human rights abuses—but there’s never been a look at the broad implications of the policy. Now that the one-child policy is over three decades old, and in its death throes, there is no better time to examine the policy in its entirety, asking the big questions like: Was it a good idea economically? Ecologically? What would China be like if other paths were taken? What would the world be like?

These are the big questions, and I am trying to answer them using storytelling methods, with narratives of people who have been affected by different aspects of this policy, and in various parts of the world. My plan is to show, not just tell. I don’t want to give away too much, because I’m still in the writing process, but let’s just say it’s going to be about the people behind the numbers.

For example, we’re used to thinking of China’s Little Emperors as cosseted kids wearing open-pants trousers—but the first generation is now hitting its thirties and beginning to shoulder the burden of parents who are facing hypertension, cancer, and other indignities of age. Not much has been written about that in a compelling way because, let’s face it, old age is not a sexy topic, but it is very much a part of what China will face. In little over a decade, every fourth person in China is going to be over sixty. That’s crazy. And in craziness lie the seeds of a good story. And that’s just one aspect of the one-child policy. I am looking at other aspects as well, like its effects on dating culture and marriage. For instance, I will take the reader to one of China’s “bachelor villages,” where there are huge numbers of single men with very little chance of finding eligible brides. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, on the other hand, the one-child policy has fostered China’s first generation of high-achieving career women, who are finding it hard to find mates of similar status. This kind of imbalance makes the dating mores of “Sex and the City” look as sane as Sunday school.

Many Westerners see the one-child policy as more of a domestic issue in China—yet it has had a global effect, big and small. Recently, I talked to a population expert who fumed about how China’s coercive policies cast a long shadow, depressing funding for international population control activities. Subsequently, there’s been a population boom in sub-Saharan Africa. So that’s an interesting question: what if the one-child policy averted millions of births in China, but indirectly caused a population boom in Africa?

The American Civil War lasted just four years and spawned writings as diverse as Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs to Gone With the Wind. By contrast, the one-child policy is the world’s biggest, most ambitious demographic experiment, lasting over thirty years and completely reshaping China. I don’t think there’s been too much written about it—on the contrary, there’s not been enough.

JW: Though I’ve mostly worked on other subjects, the very first piece I published, back in 1984, was about the policy, or rather resistance to it among rural families whose first child was a daughter. I argued that the continuing bias in favor of sons was rooted in economic trends as well as cultural patterns, and discussed the tragic things that it could lead to, from women who gave birth to daughters being cursed and beaten by family members to female infanticide. A lot has changed since then, but the preference for sons hasn’t gone away, and skewed gender ratios, albeit now having less to do with infanticide than with selective abortions, are a problem in some parts of the country. How big an issue do you consider those things, and are they going to get much attention in your book?

MF: Definitely. I am the fifth daughter in my family, and the reason for that is simple—my father, who was the sixteenth son (they didn’t count daughters), had very traditional Chinese values and wanted a son. Family lore had it he was so disappointed by my birth he didn’t even show up at the hospital. My grandmother treated my mother horribly for giving birth to only girls and used to pinch my sisters and I, while she treated my boy cousins to snacks. (I’m Malaysian, and in some ways the overseas Chinese in Asia have clung onto traditional Chinese ways more than the Chinese in China, who have had so many traditions ruthlessly upended by political turmoil.)

While a preference for sons hasn’t disappeared in China, the one-child policy has tilted the balance considerably. One issue that’s changed a lot is the issue of the bride price, or cai li, a practice typical in rural areas where the groom’s family gives the bride’s family some gifts. In the past, these tended to be things like a set of clothes, or some furniture. Now it’s shot up to several years’ farming income, and families with sons have to borrow considerable sums for cai li. That has also led to bridal scams. I was in a “bachelor” village where some runaway brides absconded with their cai li. I remember talking to a parent of one of these lovelorn grooms, who was complaining bitterly not only because his son lost a wife and money, but because there was a younger unwed son waiting in the wings. The father moaned, “I wish I had daughters instead.” The part of me that had been a scorned daughter cheered and cheered when he said that!

If only my father had had a similar change in sentiment . . . but then again, if my father had been mainland Chinese, chances are I would have been given away at birth, or never been born at all.

JW: It’s been quite clear for some time now that there are good reasons to ease off on if not completely dismantle the policy, yet the Communist Party is only now making moves in those directions. Why do you think change has been so slow in coming? And do you think there are obstacles to further changes to it going forward?

MF: One reason is money. If you think about it, the one-child policy is a relatively easy source of revenue for local governments, which collect sums without needing to provide much in return services. A Hangzhou lawyer, Wu Youshui, has been asking provincial governments to disclose how much they collect in “social compensation fees”—the money collected from those who violate the policy. So far, he’s received data from nineteen local governments totaling up close to $3 billion. None have provided information on how the revenue is spent. While $3 billion is obviously small in the context of total yearly government revenues, it doesn’t even account for off-books sums that exchange hands. For example, fines can be as much as several years’ income of a multiple-income household. Family planning officials have huge discretion, and hence power, in determining what end of the range you fall in—so you can imagine the rent-seeking going on there.

To dismantle this huge and profitable system takes a lot of political will, and it’s hard to drive that bus when all the economic difficulties of the one-child policy—pension shortfalls, diminished workforce, quenched entrepreneurial vigor—are pending, but not immediate.

Another reason is the one-child policy’s worst effects and abuses have been on China’s poorest and most disenfranchised people. Educated urbanites have been shielded from a lot of the policy’s excesses, such as forced abortions and having their homes physically destroyed. City dwellers are also least interested in having large families—their jobs and income don’t depend on it, and housing in modern China is increasingly expensive. So the one-child policy simply hasn’t had that much of a backlash against it, certainly not among the middle classes and elites, whose views are the most influential. The 2008 Pew Research survey found roughly three in four Chinese approve of the policy—but bear in mind, the survey methodology acknowledged the sampling was disproportionately representative of China’s urban areas.

JW: How important do you think this recently announced revision of the policy is? Even though it is generally called the “one-child policy,” there have long been some exceptions made so that some couples, including those belonging to ethnic minority groups, could have a second offspring. Is this just a tweaking of that pre-existing trend or something that signals a real transformation of the whole approach to limiting births?

MF: I don’t think these latest changes are that important in themselves. Some economists estimate they might increase birth rates by 10 million, which is just a drop in the bucket. They certainly can’t do much to avert China’s short-term labor issues or gender and aging problems. (The latest changes allow couples where one party is a single child to have two children. Previously, both parties needed to be single children.)

Even if every couple affected by these latest changes chooses to have more children—which is by no means certain, given rising complaints about China’s high educational costs—it takes time for babies to grow into economically productive adults. So for the next twenty years, China will be faced with a lot of demographic “deadlines” that these changes would likely do little to avert: by 2026, for example, China’s population will peak and its labor force shrink, according to Census bureau predictions. By 2030 it will hit pension funding shortfalls that could be as much as 40 percent of China’s GDP, according to economists from Deutsche Bank. As I said earlier, my book will try and put some faces and stories to those numbers.

Overall, these latest changes, coupled with other recent moves such as the merging of the Family Planning Commission within the Ministry of Health, signal that the policy is being phased out. The one-child policy probably won’t end with a bang but a whimper—but all signs increasingly indicate that whimper is coming.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, a new edition of which, updated in collaboration with fellow Dissent contributor Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published in July.

Mei Fong has done more than a decade of reporting in Asia, most recently as China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. She has won both a Pulitzer Prize and an Amnesty International Human Rights Press Award.

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