One Child: a book review

What have you been reading lately?

A while back I finished One Child by Mei Fong (the WSJ’s China Correspondent), which tackles the history and consequences of China’s notorious birth control policy. Fong argues that the policy will prove economically suicidal, persisted for longer than was ever intended, and was probably unnecessary in the first place, since China’s birthrates had already been falling prior to the implementation of the policy in 1980 and would likely have continued to fall along with the rest of the world. Further, it has had innumerable consequences on Chinese culture that will not be easily rectified. Few couples have taken advantage of the relaxed policy and had a second child. This means that in a few decades China will have almost as many retirees as working adults, and the government seems to have little plans to deal with the impending crisis.

Growing up in conservative & pro-life circles, much of this book’s matter was familiar to me: the one-child policy has spawned a growing gender disparity in a culture with a deep-seated son-preference, created a generation of only children, “little emperors” who are used to being pandered to, and encouraged numerous human rights violations such as forced abortions & sterilizations, the kidnapping and/or trafficking of unwanted infants, and denial of basic services to (non) citizens born in excess of local quotas.

These stories are at turns distressing and horrifying, and deserve to be told. However, I was frankly hoping for some sort of Thomistic “It would seem that”, explaining why some would defend this policy before taking it apart — a billion people don’t just cooperate with something so wretched for no reason, right? The book gives many good arguments against the policy but unfortunately does little to refute positive arguments to the contrary. Has the policy had apparently positive effects? The Chinese government claims to have prevented a lot of births (a number Fong disputes) and averted famine. The chief answer Fong gives to “Why China, why then?” is that “the country had been so beaten and demoralized, its intellectual capital so sapped by the Cultural Revolution, the idea of rationing children, in the same way coal and grain were rationed, made sense.” (50-1) and further observes that “there was also no adequate political mechanism for those affected to signal their outrage when the full brunt of the one-child campaign kicked in – unlike in India, for example. China also had no deep-seated religious beliefs on birth control or abortion to root out” (51). Fong touches on some positives but dismisses them rather quickly. One suggestion I found interesting was that being only allowed a daughter has forced some families to invest in their singleton daughters in a way that they would not otherwise have, creating an overall positive trend for women’s roles in the country.

The most interesting argument Fong explores for why the policy persisted past it’s expiration date is that it, like Obamacare or social security, required the creation of a bureaucracy that is not easily dismantled. To enforce a law involving something as basic as procreation requires in every city and town a network of enforcers who watch to detect secret pregnancies, keep track of birth quotas, collect fines and “convince” women to get abortions or be sterilized. Enforcement of such laws necessarily require a lot of local involvement, which quickly turned into the centralized government setting quotas and then delegating enforcement responsibilities to local provinces and towns.

This localized bureaucracy may also be responsible for many of the human rights violations: mid-level officials are penalized when their jurisdictions fail to meet quotas. In cities and wealthy areas, they may simply fine offending couples enough money to compensate for the penalties they will receive. In poorer areas, though, an official can’t expect to profit much from fines (or bribes) and may employ more extreme tactics. This system means that Beijing can state with some truthfulness that forced late-term abortions are illegal, or that they would never deny documentation to a child born on Chinese soil to Chinese citizens. They’re concerned with number crunching and leave it largely to local jurisdiction to enforce in whatever way produces results; national government seems to have generally turned a blind eye to these practices when they occur.

As a result, I can see how a local bureaucrat may think she’s being compassionate when she takes a child by force to be sold into adoption, or simply denies a child a birth certificate. She is, after all, avoiding abortion or infanticide. I was reminded of this article I read recently in which a Chinese-American woman, abandoned at birth and then adopted into the US, was staggered by the flood of eager responses when she tried to find her birth family. It is becoming more and more clear that many of China’s ‘abandoned’ daughters were actually taken by force. Fong notes that the China’s one-child policy has made China look like a ‘safe’ place for adoptions, an ethical source of unwanted babies. But the system is unfortunately more complicated than that: the existence of adoption creates a market for babies, and low-level officials may not hesitate to use that market to their advantage when crunching numbers. Couples looking to adopt need to be vigilant to ensure that their desperately longed-for child didn’t come to them through kidnapping & human trafficking.

But for those lucky first children, surely things are pretty good, no? Fong argues no, but rather that the policy is created entitled spoiled children who have now begun to grow into adults under the system. Fong quotes a few interviews and studies that suggest Chinese children are overly dependent on structure and instruction from adults, are used to being catered to, feel pressured to perform but are also picky about jobs & partners. This is where I cease to be convinced: these complaints sound suspiciously like Boomers complaining about Millenials. This led me to wonder: Can this attitude really be attributed to the one-child policy, when we see it elsewhere? Is this simply always how the old have seen the young? Or is there a real crisis of self-centeredness & dependence, affecting a generation issue not limited to young Americans? Is the fact that we observe the same trends an indication that demographically, we’re not as different from China as we think? We likewise have experienced declining birth rates that seem to correlate with increasing cultural expectations that parents will invest significantly (in time, emotion, and money) in their ever-fewer children.

This all leads me to wonder if the policy was ever truly about curbing population, or if population control was a front for the Mao et all to break down family ties and set up party ties in their place. In Old China, filial piety was among the greatest of virtues, Fong explains: “at it’s most elevated, filial piety means putting parents ahead of children; as the thinking goes, you can always have another child, not another mother.” (87) But “Mao’s government encouraged children to rise up against their parents and other figures of authority in the name of smashing the four ‘olds’ – customs, culture, habits, and ideas” (87). Restricting births makes filial piety a greater burden to a generation of only children, further encouraging parents and children alike to replace family with the state.

Regardless of motivations, though — the policy happened, and China (and the world) will likely be facing the unintended and unexpected consequences thereof for a while. As the one-child policy relaxes into a two-child policy, here’s hoping that its an experiment that won’t be repeated.

Fong, Mei. One Child: The Story of China’s Most Radical Experiment. New York & Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

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