“China’s Brutal One-Child Policy”

This article is a few days old but I think it’s well worth mentioning. Written by Chinese novelist Ma Jian, it is the most horrific examination of the one-child policy I’ve ever seen. For example:

On ramshackle barges moored on the remote waterways of Hubei and Guangxi, I met hundreds of “family-planning fugitives” — couples who’d fled their villages to give birth to an unauthorized second or third child in neighboring provinces.

Almost every one of the pregnant women I spoke to had suffered a mandatory abortion. One woman told me how, when she was eight months pregnant with an illegal second child and was unable to pay the 20,000 yuan fine (about $3,200), family planning officers dragged her to the local clinic, bound her to a surgical table and injected a lethal drug into her abdomen.

For two days she writhed on the table, her hands and feet still bound with rope, waiting for her body to eject the murdered baby. In the final stage of labor, a male doctor yanked the dead fetus out by the foot, then dropped it into a garbage can. She had no money for a cab. She had to hobble home, blood dripping down her legs and staining her white sandals red.

The brutality and inherent unfairness of the one-child policy are no secret; the wealthy can get around it by paying a special fee, while those less fortunate have no recourse, resulting at best in extreme government intrusion and, at worst, infanticide if their one child is born a girl.

One of my informal, utterly unscientific “surverys” I conducted in China about five years ago dealt with how Chinese people feel about the policy. I realize these were all white-collars I was talking to, all in Shanghai and Beijing; about half of them were native to those cities, and all of these were single children. The other half were young people who had moved to Beijing or Shanghai, usually from second-tier cities. Maybe 10 in all. Totally unscientific and non-representative of China as a whole, of course, but interesting nonetheless.

I was surprised to hear a very similar answer from most of the respondents, almost the sort of canned response I heard in regard to Taiwan. Most said it was a shame China needed such a policy, but it was absolutely imperative that something be done to control the burgeoning population. It had to be done, unfairness and intrusivenss did not make a difference. We are talking about China’s survival, and China, they argued, would be seriously handicapped if its population kept soaring. Some single children complained about what the policy has meant for them — a world without siblings and a fear they wouldn’t develop the right social skills to deal with the outside world due to growing up in a kind of cocoon, spoiled and with no brother or sister to talk to.

I would be interested in seeing the results of a real survey to measure how the Chinese feel about the one-child policy. I’d also like to know, did the government make a conscious decision that dealing with a huge surplus of unmarried men was a fair tradeoff for limiting families to one child, knowing so many would insist their child be a boy? Did they know the result would be tens of millions of “bare branches”?

I’ve seen many articles, especially recently, predicting the government is on the verge of relaxing the one-child policy. But Ma Jian argues hardliners are refusing to abandon it, and if reform comes it won’t be anytime soon. Ma closes,

Ending this scourge is a moral imperative. The atrocities committed in the name of the one-child policy over the last three decades rank among the worst crimes against humanity of the last century. The stains it has left on China may never be erased.

I don’t disagree, even if Chinese friends and acquaintances say it’s been a necessary evil. Read the whole piece to understand why there is now particular outrage against the policy because of its loopholes for the rich and powerful.

Do Chinese people still believe the policy is essential for China’s growth? I’d be very curious to know.

The Discussion: 14 Comments

The idea that the one-child policy was ever necessary is somewhat dubious. Child-birth rates were falling steadily in the late 70’s – the introduction of the one child policy didn’t even mark a specially deep inflection in the trend. Probably this trend would have levelled off at a higher level without the policy – but how much higher, and was this really worth the cost of introducing the policy?

Compare with Taiwan, where birth-rates fell roughly as far and roughly as fast, and only voluntary means were used.

May 29, 2013 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

PS – It’s hard to believe that the One Child Policy was the main driver of the fall in births seen since 1982 as opposed to the introduction of better access to birth control and better opportunities for women when you consider that the total fertility rate didn’t actually fall significantly during the 1980’s, and actually rose in the years immediately following the One Child Policy’s introduction. The One Child Policy has become a government bureaucracy that now has to justify its continued existence with scare-stories, but this doesn’t mean that we have to believe everything they say on the subject.

PPS – It’s hard to see the recent story of the baby who had to be rescued from a sewage pipe as anything but a symptom of the attitude towards child-birth created by the One Child Policy.

May 29, 2013 @ 1:49 pm | Comment

That’s among the more-interesting points, isn’t it? Hongkong and Taiwan are top in the world among countries with the lowest birth rates, and there (as in Japan) it’s just social and economic pressures that have led to this decline.
So, now, people in China are starting to discuss whether there’ll be a need to allow, maybe even support, an increase in birth rates in order to keep the economy supplied with labor, etc. – but people have gotten used to seeing a single child as normal and see the costs associated with more children (both in terms of personal life and as regards what it would cost to get them through a decent school, pay for that apartment “necessary” for a son to marry, etc.).

I don’t think there’d ever be very sensible results from surveys; views just are inherently contradictory. As are the policies, in fact, given the loopholes not just for the rich but also for minorities, for farmers, under this-or-that set of circumstances…

May 29, 2013 @ 2:37 pm | Comment

My understanding is that China is now facing the same sort of demographic crisis as the West – if not this year, then soon enough – not enough young workers earning enough and paying enough in taxes to support a rapidly aging population. It’s just a matter of time before reality sinks in and the Party drops the one-child policy. The only reason it hasn’t to date is (aside from the bureaucratic imperative identified by Richard) is the fear that ending the policy will somehow undermine the Party’s claim to inerrancy.

May 29, 2013 @ 7:15 pm | Comment

China’s one-child policy is much like America’s drug policy – brutal, unfair, and both the result and a source of dysfunctional governance. The sooner China ditches the one-child policy, the better.

Family planning in China has pretty much fixed itself with urbanization – research shows women in urban areas marry later, have children later, and are much, much less likely to want a third or fourth child, even if they could have one. (Most urban women in our generation can have a second child, since they themselves are products of the one-child policy).

If China wants to have a sane family planning policy, why not go the Cass Sunstein route and nudge people in the right direction with subsidized contraceptives and better sex education? Such an approach would be cheap, so local governments would still want to do it even absent the retarded quantitative metrics the central government imposes on them. It would also remove an additional headache local officials face in doing their admittedly difficult jobs.

May 29, 2013 @ 10:52 pm | Comment

The one child policy was another in a line of simplistic solutions to difficult problems conjured up by illiterate, ignorant peasants in their rebellion against the opportunists who ruled before. For someone who supposedly read so much and was such a “great poet” Mao was nothing more than a megalomaniacal, narcissistic thug who didn’t give a damn about the people or the country. Funny how that seems to describe politicians in every country including our own, here in the US. China would be an awesome place to live today if 80% of the population didn’t exist. Instead, it’s overrun by people with no prospects for employment, clean air or water, or untainted food.

May 31, 2013 @ 2:31 pm | Comment

@Formerly_Not_a_Sinophile – I’m sorry, but I’ve got to disagree there. Whether China is a good place to live or not cannot be blamed solely on the size of the population – actually China’s population density even in the most crowded provinces is only at about the same level as Taiwan (which, believe me, is an awesome place to live). China could be just as badly poluted in its cities even if it had a much smaller population – look at Russia.

The OCP doesn’t really have much to do with Mao or the KMT although it most definitely is Maoist or even Stalinist in character. It’s a Deng-era policy for a problem that was already on its way to being solved through urbanisation, access to birth-control, and sexual equality. There’s no need for it now.

May 31, 2013 @ 7:23 pm | Comment

#6 China would be an awesome place to live today if 80% of the population didn’t exist.

That’s a bit extreme even by the general standards of this forum.

Sounds like you would like to dust off one of those near recent European/Canadian eugenics programs and export it east.

June 1, 2013 @ 4:55 am | Comment

KT, I read the remark very differently. It is not a call for murder or eugenics, just an observation that there are too many people in China (a revolutionary concept, I know) and that it would be a more enjoyable place to live if it weren’t so over-populated. I might say the same thing about NYC too, by the way, but it would not be a call for annihilation.

June 1, 2013 @ 7:31 am | Comment

“people in China are starting to discuss whether there’ll be a need to allow, maybe even support, an increase in birth rates in order to keep the economy supplied with labor”

This is the dumbest claim spread by western media yet.

June 7, 2013 @ 11:43 pm | Comment

You should read about John B. Calhoun’s rat utopia experiment to understand why birth rate is collapsing in countries like Japan.


June 7, 2013 @ 11:46 pm | Comment

Look at India, while its birth rate has declined, its population is still on track to surpass that of china, with a landmass 1/3 the size of china.


June 9, 2013 @ 1:49 am | Comment

Population is a major problem for the under-developed nations as well as for the entire world. China’s one-child policy seems very cruel, but in the long run it is not only good for China, it benefits the world. Yes, it would be interesting to read Dan Brown’s new novel INFERNO. The leitmotif is world destructive population increase, unfortunately the author doesn’t have the courage to develop it but concentrates on meaningless, though exciting, incidents……

July 12, 2013 @ 11:22 am | Comment

Zhao: First, I’d like to explain China’s family planning policy. China’s family planning policy is not the “one child policy” as understood by some people. The government advocates each couple to have one child in accordance with the family planning policy. However, any couple facing genuine difficulties, mainly those in rural areas whose first child is a girl, can apply for the birth of second child by going through the necessary formalities. If couples in urban areas are both the product of a one child family they are entitled to produce a second child. Besides, the policies in ethnic minority areas are actually more flexible. Since specific birth policies are set by each province according to local circumstances, the conditions vary from province to province and from city to city. Even within one province, different areas may have different circumstances. Within a single area, different ethnic minority groups may also be subject to different policies.

July 21, 2013 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

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