I’ve often found myself discussing China’s one child policy when I’ve visited book groups or have spoken at other events promoting my memoir. How did my ex-husband come to have three sisters? How could he have a daughter and a son? Was I held to that law, too? (Answers: 1) He and his sisters were born years before the policy came into effect in 1980; 2) People in China could lawfully have one child with each spouse if they were married more than once; 3) The policy didn’t apply to Chinese nationals married to foreigners.)
So when my friend Christine sent me a copy of Mei Fong’s One Child (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), I was excited to read more about this controversial policy. Hardly an expert, I figured I could learn more about it.
Fong’s book is part narrative, part memoir. A seasoned and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, she interviews people involved in the planning of the one child policy as well as officials that had other ideas. For instance, although China had a population problem after Mao encouraged people to have as many children as possible–all the name of nation building–there was never a need to limit people to one child. As women become more educated and work outside the home, the birthrate naturally declines. And even if the country did implement a limit, the population would been fine with a two or three child policy.
There are so many problems with the one child policy that it’s difficult to pinpoint which is worse than the other. People will naturally point to forced abortions and gender selection, which has resulted in some villages without any females of child-bearing age. There’s also the issue of wife buying and kidnapping, the latter of which is particularly serious on the border provinces. And Fong predicts that China will become an aggressive nation as its men will become angry when there are no women to marry.
Unfortunately, it starts well before young adulthood. Many boys are raised as spoiled brats, with four grandparents and two parents doting only on them. And when any child–boy or girl–is an adult, there will be so many more elderly citizens than young people, so the latter will have great burdens to care for their elderly grandparents and parents.
A terrible after effect of the one child policy–which was lifted a couple years ago (too little, too late, according to Fong)–is that when parents lose their only child to a tragic event like the Chengdu earthquake, illness, accidents, or other natural disasters, the government is doing very little to compensate these parents. While I’m not a proponent of children’s life insurance in the US, it’s a different matter in China. The elderly have traditionally depended on their children to take care of them. And according to Chinese custom, children are responsible for taking care of their deceased parents’ and grandparents’ graves. If these children die before their parents and grandparents, the family’s lineage ends and no one will be able to tend to the deceased family members’ graves.
This book is a quick read yet packed with heart-breaking stories. Mei Fong went to great lengths to interview the major players in the one child policy (those that are still around) and the people most affected by it. I could continue with more examples of how this policy was a tragic failure, but don’t want to give it all away.