Learning from China's One Child Policy

TACOMA  “That’s interesting,” I thought to myself as I walked past a sales clerk in the grocery store who looked pregnant, “I thought she already had a baby.” Without realizing it at first, the idea that you have only one child, had sunk into me, never mind the fact I was now 5,000+ miles from China.

I came home that day to read an article in The Economist about China’s “disastrous one-child  policy.”When I first went to China in 2008 I assumed that the Chinese Communist Party had erased every tradition and superstition that had existed prior to 1949. I also was under the assumption that everyone in China had one child. On both counts, its not that simple.

China is a country of fifty-six nationalities, with roughly 92% (don’t quote me) being Han. For the fifty-five minority nationalities, parents are allowed to have two children. If someone close in age to me says he or she has a sibling, the first thing that comes to mind, is that he or she is likely part of a minority group. When young students, quite often, say that they have a brother or sister, I assume its a matter of money. Physical abuse, although reportedly less frequent than in the 1980’s can occur, just as loss of a government position for having second child. Yet, today quite often, the penalty for an additional child is financial, and one can buy one’s way to another child. In Beijing one is fined 3-10 times the average per capita income, in 2010 a fine of roughly $36,000. Having twins through the use of fertility drugs is another means, as is parenting a child with a foreigner.

As The Economist highlights, clearly there is chafing at the enforcement of China's one-child  policy, but there is also flexibility or maybe its better to say inconsistency, as this map from The Economist shows.

I occasionally have conversations with Chinese friends where I am told that likely China’s population is closer to 1.4 or 1.5 billion, not 1.3 billion, it depends on how many hide in the back yard when the census takers come around.

There is a sense that the policy has largely served its purpose, officials claimed to have limited China’s population by over four hundred million births, roughly the population of Japan and Brazil together. Speaking with Mara Hvistendahl in Shanghai summer 2009 while she did research for her new book Unnatural Selection, I learned that there is beginning to be some mission creep. Those responsible for overseeing the one-child policy are seeing that increasingly as the Chinese population slows, a new purpose for their office will be to address the gender imbalance. Yet in recent months President Hu Jintao has stated the policy needs to continue.

The Economist highlights the gender imbalance, in some parts of China 130 males for every 100 females. In China, like India, it is illegal to learn the sex of a fetus, to prevent the abortion of females. The preference for boy goes back more than the thirty years of this policy and is not limited to China. As Hvistendahl points out, there are roughly 163 million females “missing” in Asia, the issue is not solely a result of the one-child policy in China. The Economist also points out that in future decades, China is not only going to be missing females, but also males to support older generations and to keep the economy going. Deng Xiaoping, ushered in the economic reforms of Reform and Opening at the same time the one-child policy was enacted. He came to power with a paraplegic son, the injuries a result of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). There is part of me, that perhaps foolishly thinks that in a decade of re-thinking excesses of previous decades, when the state began to seriously address environmental problems; that the one-child policy was a new attempt to more pragmatically address environmental issues. That the scientists studying their population graphs recognized that China has roughly 20% of the world’s population and only 5% of the world’s natural resources.

Calls for limiting population to solve environmental problems, makes me somewhat uneasy, just as labeling the one-child policy a human rights abomination. If you were to ask someone in China today how many children they would like to have, I imagine the answer would be 1 or 2, if any. For the shrinking majority that still lives in the countryside, the answer may be more. If you were to ask someone why China has the one-child policy, or why it requires that women are at least 20 and men 22 to marry, the first answer would likely be "人太多”, ren tai duo, too many people. I’m not sure there would be a discussion of China’s limited natural resources or the reply that one should of one’s own accord limit children because of a scarcity of natural resources. When asked if they thought their lives had an impact on climate change, my respondents often replied that they are only one person. Yet there are a multitude of non-governmental organizations, governments and activists in China trying to change environmental policies and practices because each one person is part of a 1.3 billion person population.

Aside from the lost jobs and  forced abortions, what I take from the one-child policy is that in a country where policies are often made based on scientific data not poll numbers, there was an honest attempt to address perceived social and perhaps ecological issues. As individuals see themselves as one person, not one of 1.3 billion or 300 million as social and ecological issues loom, the one-child policy can offer lessons, and must not simply be dismissed.

Children's Rights, China