Mei Fong’s One Child is a harrowing account of the implementation of China’s one-child policy that was introduced in the country in 1980 and lifted in 2015.
The world’s boldest and most sweeping social engineering project had to be abandoned after 35 years as it was badly conceived and terribly implemented, and had unexpected and unforeseen consequences, mostly undesirable. Some of these consequences are already clear, but many of them are yet to unfold.
China has had to pay a heavy social and human price for enforcing a policy that the communist party and the government thought was necessary to achieve rapid economic growth. As Mei Fong shows, it now turns out that the high economic growth of the period did not have much to do with the single-child norm, and the shrinking of the population and the change in its composition, brought about by the policy, may imperil future economic growth.
Mei Fong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a Malaysian of Chinese origin, who reported on China for The Wall Street Journal from 2003 to 2010. Her account combines extensive reporting, analysis and personal experience of the working of the policy, and the narrative comes out as informative, critical, poignant and compassionate. Policies to limit the family size have been adopted and pursued by many countries, including India. But the Chinese experiment stands apart because the policy allowed only one child, the absolute minimum, and was implemented in an authoritarian country and enforced by diktat in cruel and inhuman ways.
The methods included compulsory sterilisations and forced abortions, stiff disincentives and penalties, and denial of legal and human rights on a massive scale (without relief and recompense). The consequences included theft of babies and the rise of legal and illegal adoption businesses, a severe shortage of girl children and increase in the number of bachelors, a rise in the number of aged people with little social-security support, corruption, and the creation of a population “too old, too male, and quite possibly, too few.” Some would add “too selfish” a population.
Writers on China have discussed various aspects of the policy. In China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power, another account of changing China by journalist Rob Grifford, there’s a terrible description of the abortion of a fully developed pregnancy and, in fact, the killing of the baby. A decade ago, a young man this reviewer met in China explained how he has been postponing his marriage for years because he would not be able to support three families (his own, his parents’ and that of his wife’s parents) after marriage.
Mei Fong takes a complete view of the policy and explores its social, economic, political and human dimensions with sincerity and rigour. She starts with a visit to an area where over 8,000 parents lost their only children in an earthquake in 2008. Many of them would not have another child even if the law allowed them to have one in such situations. The impact of the loss of children on such a scale on a society, for which family has always been an integral part of social and individual lives, may be imagined. Everything in life — like birth, courtship, marriage and death — assumed new meanings in a world where there was only one child, no child, or the possibility of loss of the child. Human beings are not historically equipped to deal with such situations.
Mei Fong questions the basic assumptions behind the policy. It was formulated in the 1970s by rocket scientists and engineers without any consultation with social science experts, and was based on the assumption that population growth impeded economic growth. The neo-Malthusian idea that the earth would soon go down under the weight of its fast-growing population was very strong those days. But the writer argues that China’s large population was in fact one reason for its rapid growth, and in any case, the one-child policy hardly contributed to it. She thinks that the population growth rate would have declined with the increase in the standard of living, even without the state resorting to coercive methods.
The policy may have averted about 100-200 million births, much less than claimed by the party, and it would not have made much difference to the 1.4 billion now. But the difference it may make to the future is immense. It has shrunk the working population, and by 2100, China’s population may fall to its 1950 level of about 500 million in spite of the relaxation of the policy now. The question is whether that would provide an adequate demographic base for China, which has ambitions to lead the world in the coming years.
China’s experience is relevant for India too, where the small family norm is an accepted policy, though it is not enforced in the way it was in China. Mei Fong makes this point when she refers to other East Asian economies that may find that “turning on the baby tap is far more difficult than turning it off.” She also asks an important question, countering the argument that populations should be curbed to save the planet: What are we saving the planet for?
There is a story of Mei Fong’s own effort in her mid-30s to conceive and become a mother that runs through the book. The grim tale of individual horrors and collective suffering that she tells, contrasts with her personal experience of attempts to have children and the joys of motherhood she experiences after years of waiting. That makes the book not just a study of government policy gone wrong and awry, but also an essay on the value and costs of parenthood.
2016, pp 250, Rs 599