The unfathomable cost of China's One Child policy

The World
Updated on

EDITORS NOTE: As China has announced it will end its one-child policy, here's a look from 2013 at the costs.

In hip, urban China, there's all kinds of choice, all kinds of freedoms that earlier generations under Communist Party rule could only have dreamed of — where to eat, where to shop, what to watch, where to work, how to live. With one significant exception.

The State still tells each Chinese family how many kids they can have, and when. And the State has been known to be brutal to those who bend or break the rules.

Tang Leqiong, 44, was eight months pregnant in 2005, when Family Planning officials dragged her from home in the southwestern province of Yunnan, and forced her to have an abortion.

"When I was still in the house, and it was surrounded by these officials, I called the police. They came, but they said the Family Planning officials were just doing their jobs," she recalls. After all, Tang and her husband already had one child.

Tang says she might even have agreed with them — 25 years under a coercive system can warp one's perspective — except she'd actually obtained the required permit to have a second child. In some districts in China, couples are allowed to have a second child if the first child is a girl, or if they're farmers, or if they're from an ethnic minority. Tang and her husband qualified on all three counts.

The problem was, it took Tang a couple of years to get pregnant. Local officials are given a quota of how many births are allowed in their area each year, and if they exceed that, they may not get their promotions. So, the local Xinping County family planning officials produced a paper saying that Tang's permit had expired — even though the permit itself had no expiration date on it. A court later confirmed that the family planning paper canceling the permit was bogus. But it stopped short of awarding Tang compensation, or punishing anyone for what happened.

"The officials dragged me from my house to the car, and took me to a hospital….They gave me shots to kill the baby, and then I went into labor to deliver it. When it came out, I could see it was perfectly formed. I was heartbroken. I asked for the body, to bury it — but they wouldn't let me have it. They wouldn't even let me touch it."

Tang was, however, required to pay for her own abortion. She has spent the years seeking justice.

"I want the officials who made this happen to be tried as criminals," she says. "If they'd apologized to me, I might have forgiven them, but they've never apologized."

While Tang's case is extreme, she is one of many casualties of a policy that was supposed to help improve the quality of life for Chinese people, but did it at a terrible human cost. Wang Feng, a demographer, and director of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, says the system of linking local officials' promotions to whether they've sufficiently limited the number of births in their area, has been part of the one-child policy since it started in 1982.

"There were widespread practice of forced abortion, sterilization, IUD insertion, and later there were cases where farmers' houses were torn down, their draft animals were taken away, the property was taken away and the individuals were detained," Wang says.

Wang Feng says China's One Child Policy "may be one of the most draconian examples of government social engineering ever seen." And, especially in its early years, it was breathtakingly invasive.

Some neighborhood committees would even post charts of women's menstrual periods on the wall, so everyone could see if anyone was late. Zhang Lijia, who wrote the memoir "Socialism is Great," about coming of age working in a state-owned missile factory, recalls how the Family Planning official did it there.

"You had to show your sanitary pads, your blood, to her, and then she would give you a pack of sanitary napkins," Zhang says. "Now, I look back and think 'wow, that's incredible.' But at the time, none of us had any resentment. We were told this was just taking care of female workers' welfare. It was just another rule we had to obey."

When the One-Child policy was conceived, the Party was genuinely concerned that China had too many people, and having many more would be disastrous. It hadn't helped that, even as public health care improved, infant mortality dropped, and people lived longer, Mao Zedong encouraged women to have more kids, and even gave 'heroic mother' awards to those who had five or more.

"I recall a schoolmate of mine in the '60s who was the 17th child in her family, and had two younger brothers," says Sun Changmin, the deputy director of Shanghai's Family Planning department.

That baby boom, and growing life expectancy, drove China's population up from 600 million when the Communist Party came to power in 1949 to a billion when the One Child policy started in 1982. Sun says some Chinese studies back then showed that the ideal population for China and its finite resources is 700 million.

"And if the population grew to 1.6 billion or 1.7 billion, China would collapse," Sun says. The current population is just over 1.3 billion.

Sun and other advocates of the One-Child policy say that's why it should continue, to let China's population shrink back down to a more sustainable level.

Wang Feng of the Brookings-Tsinghua Center has a different view.

"These assumptions about the maximum population China can sustain was based on the technology of the 1970s," Wang says. "It's advanced considerably since then. China now has 30 percent more people, but all of them are eating better, living better, and we're producing more grain, more efficiently."

Yes, there's pollution, he says, but that has less to do with how many people there are than with China's choice to use mostly coal and poorly refined diesel as sources of energy.

"Whether the population shrinks, and how you get there, is a moral question," he says. "I don't think it's a goal that should be set by anyone other than members of society, responding to the happy effect of longevity, as a result of human progress. It shouldn't be designed by scholars and implemented by government."

Wang also questions whether the One-Child policy was ever needed in the first place. He says the biggest drop in China's fertility rate, from almost 6 to 2.8, happened in the 1970s, before the policy started.

"And if you look at other countries around Asia, Thailand, South Korea, or even North Korea — fertility has come down in all those places to the level that's very close to China, or not much higher," he says.

And they did that, without coercion, without the 300 million abortions linked to the One-Child policy, without the skewed gender gap, due to a preference for boys and selective abortions of female fetuses, or the 150 million only children now growing up as part of a shrinking workforce supporting an ever-larger elderly population. Now, the ratio is 5 workers to every retiree. In 2030, it will be 2 to 1 — a burden for the state, and a drag on economic growth, unless both worker productivity and taxation increase considerably.

Shanghai Family Planning Deputy Director Sun Changmin recognizes this is a serious problem. The fertility rate in Shanghai is now .9 — even lower than the national average of 1.45, which in turn is well below the replacement rate of 2.1

"International experience shows that when the total fertility rate drops below 1.5, it becomes more difficult to increase it than to reduce it," Sun says.

For years, the Shanghai government has had a separate policy for only children who married: Those parents without siblings can have two kids. Only about half of those couples do.

"Some of my friends think about having another baby, but they're not doing it for now," says Zhao Hanlu, a recently married 29-year-old online editor at a Shanghai newspaper. She sits with her husband in their sunny apartment, the walls decorated with paintings they've done themselves — including a not half bad copy of Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

"Having one baby is already hard," Zhao says. "So when my friends think about having the second baby, they think, 'who's going to help me raise the second child? The first one is making me crazy.' "

Her husband, Sky Zhang, 28, a telecommunications network consultant, says he also worries that having two kids could hurt his wife's career. She looks at him appreciatively.

"Yeah, it's a big concern for me," she says. "If I have one baby, I have to take out one or two years from my career. But if I have two, I'd have to rest for four or five years. I'm 29 now — no one will hire a woman who's 35." She laughs, but isn't entirely joking.

There's also the concern about having enough money for a second child. Educated, upper-middle class professionals like Zhao and Zhang might prefer to save some disposable income for other pleasures of life. And while some government officials insist that the One Child policy is the only thing holding back the masses from procreating like rabbits, pilot projects in lower income areas have shown that many younger Chinese there, too, opt to have one child, or two at most.

Zhao's husband, Sky Zhang, says he'd like to have two kids if possible, because he knows how lonely it can be as an only child.

"Because I was alone growing up. I had to spend time alone at home, just playing by myself," he says. "If we have two children, they are not alone. It is good for their life."

The hassle, he says, is getting through the bureaucracy and paperwork to get the permit to have the second child — 10 or 20 stamps of approval, he says, to prove that he and his wife are both only children, and thus eligible to have a second child.

Making it so difficult isn't exactly a great strategy for boosting a low fertility rate. But — old habits die hard, in a family planning apparatus used to exerting intrusive control.

Still, change may be coming. One of the big reforms announced at China's annual legislative session of the National People's Congress in March was that the 30-year-old Family Planning Commission will be merged with the Ministry of Health. While the government says the One Child policy will continue, demographer Wang Feng thinks this may be the beginning of the end.

"I would say nobody in the decision-making body would insist the policy should continue indefinitely," he says. "Even the most cautious and conservative members would concede that some day, this policy has to end."

And, he says, collapsing the Family Planning Commission into the Ministry of Health, means getting rid of many of the jobs that existed solely to implement a coercive policy. He believes that without the dedicated personnel, or the dedicated department incentivized to use any means necessary to enforce the policy, the policy will gradually fall away — though its effects will reverberate.

"The one-child policy will be added to the other deadly errors in recent Chinese history, including the famine in 1959-61 caused largely by the industrialization and collectivization campaigns of the late 1950s, and the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s," said an academic paper Wang coauthored with fellow demographers Gu Baochang of People's University and Cai Yong of the University of North Carolina Population Center.

"While those grave mistakes both cost tens of millions of lives, the harms done were relatively short-lived and were corrected quickly afterward. The one-child policy, in contrast, will surpass them in impact by its role in creating a society with a seriously undermined family and kin structure, and a whole generation of future elderly and their children whose well-being will be seriously jeopardized."

And what of those hundreds of thousands of workers who built their careers around charting menstrual cycles, and punishing those who dared to have more than one child? Wang Feng cites the novel "Frog", by the Nobel prize-winning Chinese author, Mo Yan.

"In it, Mo records the journey of his fictitious aunt, who forcefully aborted thousands of babies as a person in charge of birth control in the local county, and how she eventually went nuts, recognizing the horrible crime she committed. I think this novel will be a vivid record. It will go down in history to help people understand what happened."

And what happened, he says, is that a policy the Party enacted to help the country — and itself — has hurt more than helped, in ways that will be felt for generations.

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