China's One-Child Policy Had Little To Do With Its Double-Digit Growth: Mei Fong

A catalogue of the horrors unleashed by China's population control programme.

05/09/2016 1:19 PM IST | Updated 05/09/2016 4:11 PM IST
VCG via Getty Images
Representative image. Taizhou, China, 2013. (Photo by VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Mei Fong spent over a decade reporting in Asia, a chunk of it in China, as a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Her first book, One Child, is a compelling account of the effect of the brutal family planning policy imposed by the communist government on the population of China for over three decades, until it was phased out in 2015.

Chronicling a series of encounters—bizarre, macabre, surreal—Mei brings alive the full horrors faced by a generation of Chinese. Skewed sex ratio, female infanticide, fake birth documents, illegal adoption and trafficking, heavily pregnant women with second child being injected with poison and forced to undergo abortions, thriving businesses in sex dolls, pressure on single male children (the "Little Emperors") to become successful doctors, engineers or lawyers, and a generation of elderly people left without anyone to care for them—these are some of the vignettes from the book that is thoroughly researched and narrated with compassion.

In an interview with HuffPost India, Mei spoke about the making of the book and why Indians would be able to relate to it. Edited excerpts:

Pan Macmillan

What were the personal and public circumstances that led to the writing of this book?

In my years of reporting on China for the Wall Street Journal, I'd frequently come across stories that touched upon China's population policy, because it has affected everything in the country, from manufacturing trends to real estate. But the key really came in 2008, when I covered the earthquake in Sichuan. It was China's worst disaster in a generation, killing over 70,000 people.

The most piteous victims, we thought at the time, were children, killed in the collapse of poorly-built school buildings. What I later discovered was an even more piteous group: their parents. I learnt the area had been a testing ground for the one-child policy. Harsh population control measures had been implemented there, years ago, with such success that the authorities were heartened enough to take the programme nationwide in 1980. So when the earthquake struck decades later, many folks in the area not only lost their only child, they couldn't have more because they'd been sterilised, also a result of the policy.

While I was covering this, I myself had a miscarriage. It was unexpected and the pain of that helped me understand to a greater degree what it means to lose the hope of a child. This was the genesis of the book.

Was China's one-child policy, originally meant for population control, flawed from the start? Or did it start going downhill at some point?

I think the problem is, many people equate 'population control' with the one-child policy. They are not one and the same. You can support population planning—and certainly China needed it, so more people could have access to food, education, healthcare—without supporting such an extreme step as the one-child policy, which, among other things, sanctioned the use of forced abortions even on women who were in the last stages of pregnancy.

Prior to the 1980 launch of the one-child policy, China already had in place a decades-long population control policy that was less coercive, called the "Later, Longer, Fewer" campaign. That encouraged folks to marry later and have fewer kids, and helped halve the average family size in China, from six kids to three. Then, China's authorities decided they needed to move to the more drastic one-child limitation because they wanted to achieve a target per-capita GDP of $1,000 by the year 2000. This rush to meet a rather arbitrary economic goal has caused huge population imbalances: too many men, too many old folks with a vastly diminished network of workers.

It's quite possible that if China had continued its earlier practices it would have reduced population and achieved rapid economic growth without suffering such drastic consequences—after all, many of its neighbours, such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, slowed down population growth and turbocharged their economies without resorting to anything so extreme as the one-child policy.

I think the problem is many people equate 'population control' with the one-child policy. They are not one and the same. You can support population planning ... without supporting such an extreme step as the one-child policy

Of the scores of harrowing experiences you had while working on the book, which ones have stayed with you?

I mentioned the miscarriage earlier—to me that was a huge loss and set in motion a series of events that led to me undergoing fertility treatments in China, and, eventually, quitting a job I loved, in my quest to be a mother. None of this was designed to go into the book, but years later, after I'd left China, and had my children, I began thinking of writing a book on the one-child policy. I realised that many of my experiences had relevance to the greater canvas I set out to paint. While undergoing IVF at a Beijing clinic, for example, I discovered many folks trying to conceive twins and triplets as a way to get around the policy. (Multiples count as a single birth, so folks aren't penalised by heavy fines, or threat of job loss, the way they would if they'd have the same number of children one at a time.)

In the end, the book is essentially a meditation on the costs of parenthood.

Can you compare the demographic challenges faced by China and India, especially the way these nations have tried to grapple with them?

Both countries grappled with reining in population growth. In 1983, the United Nations Population Fund gave its first-ever Population Gold medal to China and India—China for its one-child policy and India for the forced sterilisation programme. The difference is, while ordinary Chinese citizens had no recourse to political levers to express their anger at these unpopular and coercive methods, Indian voters did.

In my talks, supporters of the one-child policy, or ardent environmentalists, frequently point to India as an example of unchecked population growth and say China did the 'right' thing. I point out the one-child policy has created a very unbalanced population, including one that has 30 million surplus males and all the attendant difficulties this brings about, such as rising crime and more violence against women.

India also faces a gender imbalance, thanks to similar cultural preference for boys. But India did not have family size limits like China, so the imbalance is not as pronounced. Nature makes about 107 boys for every 100 girls. In India, there are 110 boys for every 100 girl. In China, it's a whopping 117-100 ratio, highest in the world.

Pan Macmillan

India's performance at the Rio Olympics 2016 was scrutinised on the basis of its demographic size and found wanting. How does this criticism compare with China's attitude to demographics?

I think the issue is less one of demographics and one of different sports systems. China has in place the remains of a Soviet-style state-funded sports system that identifies talent at a very young age and puts these young athletes under tough—some say brutal—training regimes for the glory of the nation. But that system is slowly crumbling, in part because of the one-child policy. Parents are more reluctant to subject their one-and-only to such pain.

But one way in which China and India have similar issues is this: despite the tough and unfair treatment women get in both places, which starts from the womb, they are the ones who deliver the most Olympic glory. That's what's so great about P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi Malik—they help change that whole "girls are less worthy" attitude that is so prevalent in both countries.

At the end of the book you draw a dire picture of the population crisis looming over China in the next 20-30 years. This sounds odd, especially with respect to one of the most populous countries in the world.

Even though China has seen below-replacement birthrates for the past twenty years, the absolute population continued to grow, what demographers call 'population momentum'. It's like when you take your foot off the driver's pedal—your car doesn't instantly come to stop. But the opposite also happens—once things slow down, or grind to a stop, it's very hard to rev things up.

Beijing's decision to switch to a nationwide two-child policy last year is widely seen as a 'too little, too late' move by a lot of demographers who think the move isn't enough to avert all these looming demographic problems. There's also the issue of thirty-plus years of indoctrination and propaganda that told the Chinese people that the one-child policy was the ideal. Some of that has stuck. Add to that rapid urbanization and advances in women's education, and the tendency is for smaller families, or no families.

China is not unique in that respect—many countries are now facing declining populations. Some have tried to increase population with pro-natal policies: tax breaks, free schooling and so forth. But it's far easier to turn off the baby tap than to turn it on. Also, these measures are expensive. China, though the world's second largest economy, has a per capita GDP that's just a sixth of South Korea's, and a ninth of the US's. In short, China has a first-world problem, without quite first-world reserves. In less than a decade, the country will no longer be the world's most populous nation. India will hold that crown. That's a huge shift.

Despite the tough and unfair treatment women get in both China and India, which starts from the womb, they are the ones who deliver the most Olympic glory.

You point out that one of the consequences of demographic planning is the way it forces people to think about parenting rationally and pragmatically. Can you talk about this?

When the costs of an extra child are made so explicit, it forces people to narrow their choices from the start. So it predisposes a lot of people to sex-select their child's gender, for example, which has led to a huge shortage of women in China. When you have only one child, then the social, emotional and financial investments are vested in one source, increasing parental anxiety. This is reflected in things like marriage—parents in China are hugely invested in their offspring's marital choices. This has played a part in the country's real estate market. Parents of sons, for example, invest in buying apartments to make their sons more eligible on the marriage market. Columbia economists estimate the gender imbalance accounted for an increase of as much as 48 percent in housing prices in China between 2003 and 2009.

Elsewhere in the world we also take into account the costs of children and marriage, but there are few places where this is as explicit as China.

Getty Images
SHA COUNTY, CHINA - MARCH 18: An elderly Chinese resident serves herself food during lunch at the Ji Xiang Temple and nursing home on March 18, 2016 in Sha County, Fujian province, China. The Buddhist temple, which houses a nursing home, opened in 2000 as a spiritual promise by a revered elderly monk to provide care and compassion for the aged. Local officials say it is the only temple in China that provides sanctuary at no cost to its elderly residents, who, in some cases have no family to care for them as their children have migrated to major cities for work. China's rapidly ageing population poses a demographic challenge for the state, as the number of people over age 60 is expected to reach nearly half a billion within 30 years. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

How has the research and writing of this book affected your life and changed you?

The one-child policy has been around for over three decades, so stories of some of the most egregious abuses had trickled down over the years. But despite this, a lot of people both in and out of China tended to see the one-child policy as a necessary evil that helped the country leapfrog from poverty to riches. I myself was in that frame of mind when I started writing about China in the late 1990s. I'm ethnically Chinese, after all, still have family there. With horrors like the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution still in living memory, it's cheering to see rapid improvements, such as people being the first in their family to go to college, buy cars, own homes.

Amidst that narrative, the one-child policy seemed like an artifact of the recent past—awful, yes, but the worst of the abuses appeared to be over, and besides, most of my Chinese friends were urbanites who didn't want many kids, and didn't regard the policy as playing a significant part on their lives.

It took me a while to realise that, contrary to popular thinking, the one-child policy had very little to do with China's double-digit economic growth of the past thirty years and will actually be a drag for the next thirty. That the Chinese government's claim the one-child policy had averted 400 million births was an exaggeration based on faulty math and wishful thinking. Or that the policy has actually played quite a significant role in determining how a sixth of humanity are born, live, and die.

I do believe climate change is a huge problem and population planning can be a good thing in overcrowded countries, but I also believe we can, and should, use measures that preserve our humanity—otherwise, what are we saving the planet for?

One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment is published by Pan Macmillan, 256 pages, paperback, Rs 599.

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