Mei Fong on China’s One-Child Policy

Mei Fong

China's notorious one-child policy will continue to affect the country for decades to come, despite being officially suspended last year - and the entire policy may have been misconstrued from the start. The forced abortions and sterilizations may be over, said Pulitzer-prize winning author Mei Fong, but second order effects on the size of the labor force, the healthcare system, pensions, marriage and dating trends and even job applications will persevere. "The one-child policy has shaped Chinese society in a major, major way," Fong said at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council Global Café breakfast on Friday, April 8th. Fong talked about the origins of the policy and its consequences - from secret two-child zones, to 'ghost children' with no official record of their existence, to the purchasing or stealing of babies to be put up for adoption in the west. The statistics are remarkable - by some forecasts China's 1.3 billion population today might shrink to 500 million by the end of this century.

Fong, whose book One Child: The Story of China's Most Radical Experiment has just been published, pointed out that in the 1960's and 70's even some western "experts" predicted that a growing population would soon exhaust the planet's resources - basically failing to anticipate the Green Revolution that produced much more food for many more people. In China after 10 years of the Cultural Revolution which led to most civilian academics being thrown out of their jobs and forced to work in the countryside, the only scientists who still had access to computers and other resources after Mao died in 1976 were the military scientists. So at a crucial conference in Chengdu in 1979 the one-child policy was essentially dreamt up by a group of rocket scientists - who had no experience in sociology, demography or other disciplines that might have suggested a more cautious approach. "The rocket scientists believed that you could dial up women's fertility like a level you push on a rocket - up or down," said Fong. Their miscalculations have led to an unsustainably imbalanced population: "There are 30 million more men than women in China today," said Fong. And they are aging fast - by 2050 one in four Chinese will be retired - a larger number of people than the entire population of Europe.

Implementing the policy verged on the draconian. In some areas families with a second child were fined between two and ten times their annual income. "That's pretty severe." A lot of these fines were at the discretion of local family planning officers, leading to widespread corruption. In cases when a family could not afford to pay the fine for having a second child, the children were not recognized legally, receiving no "hukou" or household registration card, which meant they could not enroll in school, get medical care, even apply for a library card. They are called "hei haizi" or black children, and although there are an estimated 13 million in the country, they essentially don't exist. Some families would give up their second child for adoption, especially if it was a girl. "The result was a massive abandonment of girl babies - sometimes not willingly," said Fong. "120,000 children were adopted from China - 80% are in America." Some children were trafficked. Fong met a farmer whose child was confiscated by family planning officials. He believes the daughter is in Illinois but the family here refused to cooperate with DNA testing.

Harsher still were the forced abortions, some one-third of which are estimated to have been carried out in the third trimester. Although many had heard of such sanctions for years, this policy became a national scandal in 2012 when Feng Jianmei, a 22 year-old woman was forced to have an abortion at 7 months. She was photographed by her sister lying next to the dead body of her fetus, and the photo went viral. "People were shocked to hear this was still going on," said Fong. "It was a big deal."

LAWAC Global Café breakfast discussion with Mei Fong

Public opposition to the policy, combined with a growing realization that China was aging too quickly, persuaded the government to lift the one-child policy in October last year. But because life has become more expensive in China and because an entire generation has grown up with the custom of having just one child, there has been no sudden rush by married couples to have more children. In fact, Fong points out that many of China's neighbors - notably Japan, Korea and even Singapore - have similarly aging demographics, without ever implementing a one-child policy - women simply reduced the number of children they had as they become more affluent.

Meanwhile the sociological effects of one-child families are playing out in unexpected ways - studies have found these "little emperor" children to be less willing to share, less ready to take on risks, and essentially more selfish. Many Chinese companies now advertise for workers who have siblings because they think they will make better employees. Another consequence of the relative shortage of women, combined with the narrow marriage window in China where a woman over 25 years-old is seen as left on the shelf, has led companies to set up their own dating clubs to try to make their employees happy and fulfilled and keep them from leaving.

Finally, Fong said the "generation of no siblings" could be replaced with "designer babies." The limitations of the one-child policy and the custom of extreme family planning has, argues Fong, predisposed China's population to be more open to thinking about ways to genetically design children who are smarter, taller and healthier. China is not the only country looking at genetic engineering, but "I'm going to say that probably the Chinese population will be far ahead," said Fong, "and because they are a major population, they are going to drive market demand."